Writer’s Rights Explained

Before agreeing to a writing contract, you need to have an understanding of what rights you are negotiating before you can work out what they are worth to you.

If you sell an article to a publication as a freelancer, you are actually just licensing their use of the article. In the absence of any other agreement, you can generally assume that you are selling First Print Rights, in the territory that the publication operates. And once that publication has published the article, then all copyright reverts to you.

Assumption often doesn’t hold true though – and it’s quite astounding how many publishers are clueless about rights.

It’s also quite worrying that there’s a growing trend for publishers to ask for the assignation of copyright or of “All Rights” – when often they will never use these.

If you understand what rights you have to offer, you will be able to negotiate a fair contract that allows the publisher to do what they need to with the story, without limiting your ability to re-sell the work elsewhere if you can.

In general, it’s wise to offer as few rights as possible when you are selling a story to a publisher.

Here’s a rights glossary:

First Rights: These give the publisher a once-off right in a particular media (eg print, broadcast, website) or territory; generally you specify what the rights are ‘first’ in and over what time period:

Media: eg First Print Rights or First Serial Rights: The publisher has a once-off right to put your story in a national print publication and you promise not to sell it elsewhere until they publish. (It’s not a bad idea to add a time-limit to this if you think you will re-sell the story.) Media might include Print, Broadcast, Radio, Digital, Electronic, Database – and there are bound to be more. Don’t forget, once published, all copyright reverts to you.

Territory: You can add territory to your “first print” rights – so you might sell First Australian Print Rights; this still gives you the ability to re-sell First UK Rights, First European Rights, First North American Rights etc etc.

Perpetual Rights: It is a good idea to time-limit rights for 3, 6, 12 or 24 months. When a publisher requests perpetual rights, these won’t revert back to you in your lifetime.

Second Rights and subsequent print or serial rights (also called reprint rights): In this case you’re telling the publisher that while the piece may have been published elsewhere (including on your own website), you’re selling the right to publish it again. Generally you would charge less for these rights.

Exclusive / Non-exclusive Rights: Selling non-exclusive rights allows you to re-sell the material to more than one publication within a territory at the same time. When a publisher asks for exclusive rights, you cannot resell the material in the specified time frame, medium or territory. Try to define a very clear time limit on these rights – and time it from something you have control over, such as the date of submission, rather than something that you have no control over – the date of publication.

Digital Rights: (variously known as electronic rights, electronic publishing rights, online rights or internet or website rights): generally refers to the right to publish on the internet. It’s worth specifying whether this includes an e-mail newsletter, or a database archive or CD or DVD-ROM or other file-transfer mechanism.  Try to be specific. Do Digital rights include iPad rights? Possibly! If you are specific then both writer and publisher are clear about where they stand. Where possible you should aim to sell Non-Exclusive Digital rights.

Archival Rights: generally refers to the article continuing to be made available in back-issue, usually through online databases. It’s worth attempting to time-limit archival rights, if you can.

All Rights
: This is exactly what it sounds like – although you are still the copyright holder, you’ve got no rights left, having relinquished any future rights over the article. And the publisher can resell your work without compensating you.

Copyright: When you sell copyright you are effectively relinquishing all future rights.

Moral Rights: These rights – to have control over the integrity of your work including byline and so on, are enshrined in international agreements and must specifically be relinquished. It’s unwise to do so.

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  • sylvester  On June 12, 2012 at 6:59 am

    good info but still complicated…example copyright means you have no rights ? excuse caps-but once upon a time i was producing writing & rapping also managing. the 3 songs were on a cassette at the time (5000) copies sold out in five minutes. we do not make 1 penny. are there any chance of recovery ? live shows for fans ?


  • By On Intellectual Property Rights | Wadadli Pen on May 23, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    […] There’s the writing I do as a for-rent freelancer, and the fresh battle each and every damn time over rights (with respect to the present and future use of the work across all formats i.e. not paying fo… […]

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