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How Important Are Copyrights Anyway?

freelance writingHi Anne,

First off, thank you so much for all you do to help your fellow writers!

I have a question, and maybe you can answer it.  I was perusing the day’s writing jobs that you are kind enough to send, and came across one that involved writing articles about a game that I play.  It sounded great and I was getting excited until I saw a line about “copyright transfer upon receipt of payment.”  My brain came screeching to a halt.  Why, as a writer, would somebody want to to do that?  I mean, yeah, it’s a couple extra bucks, but you can’t claim the piece as your own, or use it in a portfolio for future work… or can you?  Can you show a piece that was ghost-written and is there a way to claim it?  What are the rules on this?

Thanks for any help you can give,

Amelia Ramstead

Hi Amelia,

Glad you find this site useful, thanks.

There’s often a lot of confusion about the actual value of a copyright, both for authors and publishers. In this instance it may be that super cautious lawyers insist that the copyright be held by the publisher, or maybe they have hopes of publishing some sort of guide, or, well who knows.

Which brings me to your questions. First, let me ask you one. Assuming you wrote several articles for this site, are those articles something you’re likely to want to use again? Think seriously about this for a moment.

In my experience the article I write today for a website or a blog or a magazine is unlikely to be something I’d want to use again. That’s not always the case, of course, but it often is. Some questions to include in your contemplation would include:

  • Would the piece, exactly as it is, make a likely candidate for selling second or reprint rights? If it is, you want the copyright.
  • If you were writing your memoir is the article something you’d be likely to include? If so, you want the copyright.
  • Would having this particular article posted on your website be truly impressive? If so, you want the copyright.

On the other hand, if the article doesn’t fit this sort of criteria, the copyright doesn’t do you any good – so why hang on to it?

Now, remembering I’m not a lawyer, I’ve linked to articles I’ve written but don’t hold the copyright on and, on occasion, I’ve gotten permission to reprint (not sell) my writing as a sample. And I’ve claimed credit for ghostwritten material just by saying so – with and without links.

I do this carefully of course, considering the nature of the agreement. I won’t, for example, tell you some of the author’s I’ve ghostwritten books for unless I have their specific permission. Articles for websites are a bit different. Linking has never been a problem for me.

Has anyone had trouble linking to articles they’ve written even though they no longer hold the copyright?



{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Hmm, interesting. I’ve avoided several listings because they said explicitly this very thing, that you lose the copyright on the work. However, the site I’m doing content work for now allows a link to your articles, and a byline. I wouldn’t put but a couple on my resume as writing samples, in any case. I’m trying to get more credits than that.

    Definitely gives one something to think about.
    Elizabeth West recently posted..These Are a Few of My Favorite BooksMy Profile

  • A lot of my work is ghostwritten, and therefore involves copyright transfer. Some pay more for full rights even if they give me a by-line. If they buy full rights but I’m by-lined, I’ll link to it in a portfolio (but not republish there in full without the client’s permission since I no longer have any publication rights). If it’s ghostwritten, even linking would have to be run through a client. By the very nature of ghostwriting, you are a “ghost.” You’re supposed to be invisible, and absolutely no one should know the named author isn’t the real author of a piece unless they give you explicit permission to claim authorship. When you sell the copyright under a ghostwriting agreement, they are the author. Period. Saying anything to the contrary risks getting you in hot water with them legally. Remember, you risk damaging the client’s own reputation and business by exposing that fact — they’re hiring you to ghost for a reason.

    There are plenty of cases where ghostwriting is involved but clients don’t mind you linking in a portfolio. Press releases are my most common example. They’re generally credited to the contact person on the release, even though it doesn’t blatantly name them as an author. I’ve never had a client refuse to let me use a release in my portfolio. The same is true of of most business writing that traditionally doesn’t carry an author name.

    • A couple of side notes:

      1. You can charge much more than a “couple of extra bucks” if you’re selling full rights as opposed to first rights or Web rights or just print rights. So if a client isn’t offering enough to make that worthwhile, you can always ask for more or renegotiate rights. Oftentimes on the Web for example people ask for the full copyright when what they really want is exclusive Web rights. They’ll never use it in print, but they know duplicate content online can hurt their business when it comes to SEO.

      2. Anne mentions deciding if you could use the article again exactly as-is. I’d be even more careful than that. Here in the US for example, if you sell the copyright to a piece to client A, you cannot rewrite the material in a different format and sell it to client B. That’s creating a derivative work. And only the copyright holder has the right to authorize a derivative work’s creation. If you sign over copyright on the original piece, you lose that right to the work — not just reselling it in its original form.

      • Jenn, I’m not talking about the same content in a different format, I’m talking about a serious rewrite of the info… do you know off hand where there’s a definition of “derivative work”? This is new to me.

        • Just for others’ sake — details were sent to Anne privately regarding the legal definition of a derivative work and that it incorporates even “serious rewrites.” In short, any adaptation of a copyrighted piece of work is a derivative work, and if you sell the copyright to the original you cannot legally rewrite it (to any degree) and sell it to someone else. More comprehensive info will be put together for a guest post as requested. 🙂

    • Jenn, not sure that linking qualifies as publication, but you’re right, it’s certainly better to get permission, in writing.

      • Linking doesn’t equal publication, but does equal a claim of authorship. And whoever owns the copyright is the one with the legal right to claim authorship. So claiming you wrote something (that was ghostwritten, with full copyright sold, and the client’s name publicly listed at the author) would violate that. It also has the potential to ruin the client’s business if their audience finds out they aren’t the real author (such as features in trade pubs used to build the “author’s” credentials or a book where they have reasons to keep the ghostwriting fact secret — after all, that’s why they hire a ghost in the first place). So I’d never link in a portfolio to something ghostwritten without permission from the client. Even if you don’t sell the full copyright, you need to look out for NDA’s (non-disclosure agreements) in contracts as well. If you’re forbidden from letting anyone know you’re working with a specific client, linking to something you did for them in a portfolio might be a contract violation even if not copyright infringement.

  • This is something that I’ve frequently thought about. I may not think there’s any use to owning my intellectual property now but who knows what the future will bring.

  • Wow, that’s a great question. To be honest, I never put a lot of thought into copyright on the articles I’ve written for others. I have permission to use many of the articles as clips, but beyond that, I have no use for them.

    On the other hand, I have used the “copyright transferred to me upon payment” verbiage for articles I’ve had written FOR me (website content, primarily), simply because I didn’t want the writer to use it again on another site.

    I’m not a lawyer either, so I probably worry a lot less about this than I should. Thanks for making me think about this in a different way.
    Cindy Bidar recently posted..Perception is EverythingMy Profile

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