Basic Writers' Rights

Information taken from the following sources:

Bentley, Chantelle. "The Poet's Market Guide to Poetry Submission Etiquette." 1999 Poet's Market. Ed. Chantelle Bentley. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest, 1998.12-13.

"The Business of Writing." 1999 Writer's Market. Ed. Kirsten C. Holm. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest, 1998.63-64.

Zahoroff, Howard G. "The Shy Writer's Guide to Successful Negotiation." Writer's Digest Feb. 1998:34.


Rights and the Writer


A creative work can be used in many different ways. As the originator of written works, you enjoy full control over how those works are used; you are in charge of the rights that your creative works are "born" with. When you agree to have your work published, you are giving the publisher the right to use your work in one or more ways. Whether that right is simply to publish the work for the first time in a periodical or to publish it as many times as he likes and in whatever form he likes is up to you--it all depends on the terms of the contract or agreement between the two of you. As a general rule, the more rights you license away, the less control you have over your work and the more money you should be paid for the license. You should strive to keep as many rights to your work as you can from the outset; otherwise, your attempts to resell your writing may be seriously hampered.

The Copyright Law that went into effect January 1, 1978, said writers were primarily selling one-time rights to their work unless they--and the publisher--agreed otherwise in writing. Book rights are covered fully by the contract between the writer and the book publisher.


Types of Rights


First Rights (a.k.a. "First Serial Rights"): The writer offers the journal, magazine, or newspaper the right to publish the article, story, or poem for the first time in any periodical. All other rights to the material remain with the writer. The qualifier "North American" is often added to this phrase ("first North American serial rights") to specify a geographical limit to the license. Your work can still be submitted to editors outside North America. When material is excerpted from a book scheduled to be published and it appears in a magazine or newspaper prior to book publication, this is also called first serial rights.

One-Time Rights (a.k.a. "Simultaneous Rights"): A periodical that licenses one-time rights to a work buys the nonexclusive right to publish the work once. There is nothing to stop the author from selling the work to other publications at the same time. Simultaneous submissions would typically be to periodicals without overlapping audiences.

Second Serial (Reprint) Rights: Editors and publishers seeking reprint rights are open to submissions of previously published work--provided you tell them when and where the work was previously published so they can properly credit the periodical in which your work first appeared. Second serial rights are nonexclusive--they can be licensed to more than one market at the same time.

All Rights: As the name implies, you license away all rights to your work; you forfeit the right to ever use it again, not even as part of your own collection, unless you negotiate to get reprint rights returned to you. If you think you'll want to use the material later, you must avoid submitting to such markets or refuse payment and withdraw your material. Before you agree to this type of assignment or sale, ask the editor whether he is willing to buy first rights instead of all rights. Also, some editors will reassign rights to a writer after a given period, such as one year. It's worth an inquiry in writing.

Electronic Rights: These rights cover usage in a broad range of electronic media, from online magazines (e-zines) and databases to CD-ROM magazine anthologies and interactive games. The magazine contract should specify if--and which--electronic rights are included. The presumption is that unspecified rights are kept by the writer.

Subsidiary Rights: These are the rights, other than book publication rights, that should be covered in a book contract. These may include various serial rights; movie, television, audiotape, and other electronic rights; translation rights, etc. The book contract should specify who controls these right (author or publisher) and what percentage of sales from the licensing of these subsidiary rights goes to the author.

Dramatic, Television, and Motion Picture Rights: This means the writer is selling his material for use on the stage, in television, or in the movies. Often a one-year option to buy such rights is offered (generally for 10% of the total price). The interested party then tries to sell the idea to other people--actors, directors, studios, or television networks, etc. Some properties are optioned over and over again, but most fail to become dramatic productions. In such cases, the writer can sell his rights again and again--as long as there is interest in the material. Though dramatic, TV, and motion picture rights are more important to the fiction writer than the nonfiction writer, producers today are increasingly interested in nonfiction material; many biographies, topical books, and true stories are being dramatized.