Sunday, May 29, 2016


Few topics confuse writers as much as “rights” but few topics are as important to us, especially at the outset of our careers. The advent of the internet and electronic publishing  complicated the issue and copyright legislation has lagged behind the technology. I will discuss the basics only and I emphasize that I am not a lawyer.
When we create a book or an article we own the copyright (the right to copy), which means we own all the rights to our work and no one can use it without our knowledge or permission. Rights are the “uses” to which an article or book can be put. It can be the licence to publish it, such as publication in a print magazine, or make your story into a movie. Writers can sell these rights or uses in several ways or retain them for future opportunities. 
Print and electronic rights for traditionally published books typically last until the book is out of print, selling less than a prescribed number of copies per year, or the company goes out of business, after which the rights revert to the author.
First Serial Rights are an issue for freelance writers of articles or short stories for print or electronic markets, and means you are selling the publication the right to publish your article/story for the first time and once only. They may not publish it anywhere else either.
In the case of first print rights – the writer may immediately sell the piece to an e-zine before print publication. Once the print magazine containing your article hits the newsstand, you are free to sell it again as a reprint to other print markets.
However, first electronic rights are different – e-zines buy first rights for an exclusive time period, between six months or a year, and in the same breath, ask for non-exclusive rights after that so they can archive the piece. While you can immediately sell the same piece to a print market as a “first print right,” you cannot even post the e-article on your own website until that time period is up. Once it is, you are then free to sell the article to other electronic markets as a reprint and post it yourself too.
Most Canadian and US freelancers choose to sell only North American first serial rights, reserving the right to sell in other world markets for themselves. I always specify what type of rights I am selling on the manuscript and in the email, e.g. First North American Electronic Rights Only.
Second Serial Rights are reprint rights and apply to print. Do not offer these, retain them at all costs. For, although you earn less money for each reprint, you can sell one piece over and over again.
All Rights means exactly what it says and are rarely sold. When they are, the author gives up forever all future income from the article or book and loses the copyright, which moves to the purchaser. Newspapers often operate this way.
Other rights that authors and freelancers may hold or licence are called subsidiary rights and apply more to books. These include movie rights, dramatic, TV and radio rights, audio, and other media rights. These are important to negotiate. But don’t forget, the Travolta movie, Urban Cowboy, came from a magazine article….
E-rights for books traditionally published are a part of every contract these days. It used to be a negotiable clause but is no longer; neither is the split of revenues between the publisher and the author.
This leaves one critical point: Always, always have a contract. If you don't you may find you've lost all rights or some you wish you had retained. Be very clear what you're selling and for how long.

If you find yourself confused, concerned, or faced with a questionable contract, get legal advice or contact your national authors’ or writers’ association for further guidance.