Know Your Writing Rights: Copyright and Publication Rights for Writers
For someone who has never tried to publish before, what you can do with your writing and what it actually means can be confusing. In this post, I’m going to briefly cover what copyright is and what it means for you as a writer, and then explore publication rights. These are very important to know if you’re hoping to become a published author or a freelance writer. This article will be dealing primarily with U.S. copyright and publication law. Make sure to check out what the copyright laws are like in your country!
1. Copyright: I probably already know this, but what is copyright?
Copyright law, given by the U.S. Copyright Clause, is the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”
What this means for writers is that we have exclusive rights to whatever we write. Basically everyone’s at least heard of copyright.
Got it—how do I copyright my work?
The moment you write or type a work, it’s already copyrighted. The Copyright Act of 1976 ensures that you do not have to register a work with the U.S. Copyright office in order for your work to be under your own copyright; it is, by default.
However, if you have fears of someone seriously stealing your work, then you should take the steps to file your work with the U.S. Copyright office at www.copyright.gov. It’s a $35 - $50 fee, but ensures that if someone does steal your work, you have hard-recorded proof of the date and nature of the piece that you wrote.
There is something known as a “poor man’s copyright” which involves sending yourself a manuscript of whatever you have written in an envelope that you do not open. Presumably, not breaking the seal, you can use it in court as a way to prove by the post stamp that you were the first person to receive it. However, I don’t know if this will stand up in court, as it doesn’t actually prove that you were the first person to write the work, and there are no protections provided in U.S. copyright law for this method.
Edit: Thanks, Jen! :
The “poor man’s ©” is a myth. At best all it does is prove that you created the doc. before the date on the postal cancellation, BUT you must have a registered © to file infringement suit in fed. court, be eligible for damages &/or injunctive relief.
2. Publication Rights: What are publication rights?
When you sell a work, you’re selling the use of the work or sometimes ownership of the work itself. Any time a publisher publishes your work, you are giving them the rights to use your work in a specific way. There’s a couple different types, and I’m going to cover the most common types of rights—note that they can and often combine to form a unique deal between yourself and the publisher.
In the creative world originality is important and publishers want to be the first to publish something that you’ve written. This matters to most publishers more than anything, because being the first or sole source of your content means they can make more money. There are many different types of variations on First Rights, allowing you to sell your work over and over again so long as these different types don’t conflict.
NOTE: Many publishers will consider anything posted online in a place that is not a private forum or closed website (i.e. a private writers’ forum or somewhere to get critiques) as previously published. This includes your Tumblr, Wordpress blog, etc.
First Print Rights
The publisher is buying the rights to be the first to publish your work in print. Pretty basic.
First Electronic Rights
With this, the publisher is buying the rights to be the first to publish your work in a digital format—note that this can include any digital media (web, CD, DVD, ebooks, and more), so you should make sure to clarify what “electronic rights” means in your contract.
First North American Serial Rights
Also known as FNASR, First North American Serial Rights is the type of rights you’ll be dealing with most frequently if you’re an author. It means, “you get to be the first publisher in North America to publish my work once, and then after that all the rights belong to me again.” There are also other types of first rights like this such as the First Australia Serial Rights, First Canadian Serial Rights, First Britain Serial Rights, etc.
NOTE: If a publisher wants to buy First Serial Rights without specifying a location, this means they want to buy the rights to publish it everywhere, and you cannot sell the First Serial Rights separately to different publishers around the world.
First World Language Rights
First World Language Rights such as First World English or First World Spanish give the publisher the rights to publish your work anywhere in the world with a specific language—so selling First World English would encompass, for instance, America, Canada, Britain, and other English-speaking areas of the world. You can sell your First Serial Rights to publishers in all of these places and then sell First World Language rights to another publisher.
Reprint Rights/Second Serial Rights
This gives the publisher the right to reprint your work a second time, after it has been printed initially somewhere else. This can come in either an exclusive or nonexclusive flavor, which will be covered below.
This type of right means that publishers can publish your piece once, but not necessarily first.
This is important. Exclusive rights mean that during the time that a publisher has exclusive rights to your writing, it cannot be published anywhere else. Non-exclusive rights mean that you can publish them simultaneously with other publishers.
The rights to publish your work in an anthology.
The rights to publish excerpts from your piece.
The rights to publish your work online and retain them as part of an archive. This can be set to last a certain duration, or indefinitely. It’s much harder to resell a work that is available online forever.
All rights mean that you are selling all of the rights of a work. You can no longer use or resell it in the form it was sold in, and the publisher can sell, publish, print, and otherwise use your work in whatever manner they please without giving you further royalties. However, your name is still attached to it, unlike the next rights—work-for-hire.
Work for Hire
This is the rights system used by freelance writers such as for-hire-bloggers and ghostwriters. They sell all rights to the work including copyright, meaning that the publication or client owns the piece entirely and can even publish it under another name.
As you can see, there are a lot of different type of rights. It can be overwhelming at first, but having a strong awareness of how much you can get out of your work will allow you to think critically and make careful decisions regarding how you want to sell your work to publishers and what it means for the work in the future.
I wanted to make a handy go-to for writers just on the scene like myself, so I dug up most of this information from the following sites. They offer a deeper, comprehensive view of the information presented here, and if you’re looking for more information, they would be great places to start.
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- jayarrarr said: The “poor man’s ©” is a myth. At best all it does is prove that you created the doc. before the date on the postal cancellation, BUT you must have a registered © to file infringement suit in fed. court, be eligible for damages &/or injunctive relief.
- creepyblogs posted this