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How Can I Re-Use Articles I’ve Sold Once?

Hi Anne,

I’m a freelance writer for an online food magazine.  I choose my own subjects to write about, provide my own photos.

I do get paid for my writing but have never signed a contract.

I like the editor very much and don’t want to step on toes.

What I’d like to know is if it’s legal for me to compile all of my articles, change them up a bit and then put them into a book format for resale.

Thanks!

AM

Hi AM,

First, I’m not a lawyer – and I don’t even play one on TV or in radio dramas.

Since you don’t have a contract that let’s you keep the copyright I think it’s safe to start with the assumption that the site does own the work you sold them even if you don’t find a copyright notice there.


Assuming that’s the case you can’t just take the articles and the photos you submitted and re-use them in any fashion without their explicit permission. Nor will changing them “up a bit” allow you to use them.

Not so by the way this is a perfect example of why we should all have contracts with those we write for and those contracts should spell out who owns our work. If you look around you’ll see while it’s not the norm it’s also not unusual for writers to retain copyrights.

More common in a situation like this would be to only sell First Rights – then you’d have the option to sell the articles and photos again. Though to be clear, I’m not sure that would allow you to put them in a book.


Which is not to say all is lost.

You could simply ask your editor there if they have any objection to your using the articles and photos in a book. They might say yes. The magazine might also want you to make some sort of a statement like “article and picture original appeared in (name of magazine/site.)”

It could be that they would want to join you, and maybe even provide some initial funding, in creating the book so both you and the magazine would profit from it.

In terms of rewriting if you can’t get permission to use the articles and photos as they are you’ll have to totally rewrite each one and use different photos. A total rewrite can be difficult to quantify but you’d want to rewrite enough so most people wouldn’t recognize them. Even then it would be nice to acknowledge the magazine.

Another thing to consider is that you may want to totally rewrite them when you’re re-purposing each idea for a book. The truth is that when I want to reuse material I wrote awhile back I often want to do a major rewrite.

Good luck.

Do you have a question about freelance writing? Contact me with Q&A in the subject line and I’ll do my best to answer it here.

[sig]

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Having a contract is like a magic pill. If you can get them to sign it ahead of time, I’ve found it usually eliminates all future arguments.
    Christine recently posted..Surusu Queue Backlog Now Being ResolvedMy Profile

    • And if they won’t sign one I won’t work for them.

  • The creator of a work owns the copyright unless he agrees to give it away.

    Where there’s no pre-agreement, I would take into account the fee you were paid. If you were given several hundred dollars for a few hundred words, I would assume the publisher was expecting full rights. Even if I could legally get away with republishing, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that, at least not without asking permission.

    On the other hand, I’ve been paid peanuts for a few hundred words as well, and I’ve had no qualms about recycling or republishing without asking.

    Basically, in the absence of a contract, think about what’s fair. Publishers get what they pay for.

    • David I don’t think pay has anything at all to do with the rights… I agree there’s not likely to be a problem, although with copyscape who knows.

  • I’m not sure about an online magazine, but the website I’ve written for owns all my articles. I’m free to link to them for clips but I cannot resell them anywhere else.

    That doesn’t mean I couldn’t write an article about that subject again, but it would have to be different and not contain content I already published on the site. For some subjects, that would be easy to find another angle, but for others not so much. Food I think is versatile enough to do rewrites. What Anne said about approaching the editor on a collaboration might be worth a try also.
    Elizabeth West recently posted..RENOVATIONS: Sounds like a design firm, doesn’t it?My Profile

    • That’s my understanding… about.com owned all my content – so did or does b5media, but they both said that clearly upfront. I own the content here I think unless a guest poster asks for the copyright, which come to think of it, I’m always happy to give.

  • Catwoman

    I think in a usual way, the copyrights stay by the writer until he/she sells them. If someone is hired for a text, the employer has only the right of the publication of the text, not the copyright. Am I wrong?
    Catwoman recently posted..fogbeültetésMy Profile

    • Well now I’m wondering… not sure where to ask to get real authority. I’ve always thought if I sold a piece and the copyright wasn’t spelled out the publisher owned the piece.

  • When it comes to published content, he who publishes first get automatic rights. If you want to recycle your works, you will have to rewrite them.

    • Paul, not sure that’s exactly right – I as a writer can sell first rights or exclusive rights, but it needs to be spelled out in advance.

  • Shim Shimuzu

    In the absence of a contract that stipulates that it is “work for hire”, I believe the copyright in fact defaults to the writer – which is as it should be.

    This probably isn’t what the website owner is expecting however, and it will probably come as something as a shock.

    As you say, this is why you should always get a contract that clears these matters up.

    • Shim, can you give us a citation on that? It’s now how I understand it but I’ve been wrong at least once or twice. 😉

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