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What Do U.S. Writers Need To Know About Rights?

writers and copy rightsIf you’re in the United States, the issue of what rights to your writing you hold and how you can sell them is fairly clear.

It starts with the notion that you own what you write. You can distribute copies  of it, create derivative works, broadcast it and, of interest to most writers, sell it.

No copyright for ideas

Often there is some confusion between the idea and it’s expression. The rule is simple; ideas cannot be copyrighted. As writers we own only the expression of our ideas – the writing. That expression doesn’t extend to titles. Titles can’t be copyrighted which is why you’ll often find duplicate book titles.



It’s also worth noting that you don’t have to go through a formal copyright process. Adding a copyright symbol, your name, and the year is considered enough in most cases. In fact, as long as you can demonstrate you’re the author you really don’t even have to do that. You own the exclusive rights to your writing until and unless you choose to transfer those rights to someone else, often through a sale.

What rights can you sell?

It’s easy to get tangled up in trying to figure out exactly what rights you can sell. I’m certainly no attorney and this isn’t meant to be legal advice. (That’s the CYA statement.) Most writers can keep it simple with the guidelines below.

All or Exclusive Rights. You can sell all your rights, typically known as exclusive rights, or all rights. At that point you no longer have any rights to the work at all. The person or entity you sold to owns the work lock stock and barrel. They can reproduce it, create derivative works from it, etc. just as if they’d written it themselves.

World or North American Rights. Book publishers typically want world or North American rights – giving them the right to publish and sell the book.

Foreign Rights. A book publisher in the United States may want to sell your book in foreign countries -hence foreign rights. This is usually an advantage to the author.



Electronic Rights. Electronic rights gives the person you sell to the specific you sell to publish electronically – including ebooks, websites etc. If you sell exclusive or all rights, just as with printed material you no longer have any control over the work. Obviously, you want be aware of exactly what electronic rights you’re selling. If the writing is a book it’s important to un-link the contract’s definition of “out of print” from the ebook edition so you have the ability to buy back your rights when the book is out of print.

First Rights. Magazines and newspapers typically want the right to use the work they buy first and that’s what you’re selling. After it’s been published you have the right to sell second or other rights subordinate to first rights.. Obviously, since you’ve sold first rights you can’t sell all or exclusive rights.

When you resell an article to another magazine or newspaper you are typically selling second rights.

Our government has a substantial website on the subject of copryrights.

Fair Use

Again, in the United States there is the Doctrine of Fair Use. The idea is that it’s okay for reviewers and the like to use short quotes from other’s works without permission. This was created so that reviewers could do their work. It’s a problem because there’s no clear definition of what’s fair. My personal guideline is the shorter the better.

Fair Use has been used by some to say that anything on the web can be used without permission. That’s absolutely false. In this country the writing on the web enjoys the same protection as any other writing.

Creative Commons Copyright

Because the internet has brought a wealth of free information and there is the recognition that not everything needs to be copyrighted there is a move to a new copyright called the Creative Commons Copyright. Less restrictive in some ways it can give me more control over how I allow my work to be used. I like this form and use it.

Rights Outside the United States

Between globalization and the internet, which feed on each other to both our advantage and disadvantage, the rights situation becomes more confusing. It seems that every country has a different view of what the writer owns to begin with and what they can do with it.

I’m not sure what you’re approach should be. Intellectual property lawyers who really understand foreign issues are expansive. Even if you win a law suit enforcement can be impossible. As I spell out a bit below since I can’t control or even influence it, I don’t worry about it.

So far attempts to control or ‘fix’ the situation like the proposed SOPA legislation threaten to make things much worse because the people writing the bills don’t understand the ‘net. The proposed cure is far worse than the problem.

Not everyone agrees with me, but I don’t worry much about rights for my writing. I’ve written about that in an post I called How Important Are Copyrights Anyway? The article and some of the comments are worth considering.

How do you approach copyrights and your writing?

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{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Alyssa

    Looks like this is one of the most posts that I have to read and other people too…Thanks for the idea and help here…
    Alyssa recently posted..Parc RosewoodMy Profile

  • Cindy

    Such an informative article! Although I am not a US citizen, I found your text very useful. I think all the blogger should have known these rules to be up2date in the world of the web. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I plan to try to make something similar but according to the european law.

    • Cindy, let me know when it’s up and I’ll link.

  • Regarding fair use, I’ve found a great rule of thumb is that you should only use an selection of text that you are perfectly happy to type out from scratch. If it’s long enough that you are instinctively reaching for the Cut+Paste, you should think again about whether you are being fair.

    • Hmmm… of course as I’ve gotten older I tend to use cut and past more, but that’s not a bad guideline, thanks.

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