You own the copyright to anything you write, but registration with the U.S. Copyright Office will entitle you to monetary damages in cases of infringement, which rarely occur with literary works. Usually, it is safe for you to wait until your book has been contracted for publication; your publisher should then copyright the book in your name.
If you are signing a book contract, it is crucial that you avoid granting copyright of your work to a publisher. Also, never stipulate that yours is a work “made for hire,” which would legally make the publisher the owner of your work.
Glossary of Rights
The right to own your work. Avoid granting a publisher all rights to your work; if you do, you can never use the same work again in its current form. For example, if you have sold all rights to a story and later want to include that story in an anthology, you’ll have to purchase the right to do so from the publication that now owns all rights to it. The owner of all rights is free to reprint your material or to sell it elsewhere without paying any additional money to you. The owner would also be free to use all of the rights listed below.
The right to publish or allow others to publish electronic versions of your work (including CD-ROMs or other electronic devices). The Authors Guild argues that writers should be compensated for the electronic reproduction of their work, just as they are compensated for print reproduction.
The right to publish your work without the work appearing elsewhere at the same time. Often, publishers request exclusive rights for a given length of time—three months, six months, or one year, for example. After the exclusivity period has ended, you are free to publish your work elsewhere.
First North American Serial Rights (FNASR)
The right to be the first publisher of your work one time in North America. Selling first North American serial rights allows you to sell first serial rights to the same work in places other than North America.
First Serial Rights
The right to be the first publisher of your work. After the work is published once anywhere, all rights revert back to you.
The right to publish your work on the Internet or via e-mail (as in an e-mail newsletter). Unlike electronic rights, Internet rights do not grant a publisher the right to reproduce your work on CD-ROM or another physical electronic device.
The right to print a work a second time. Reprint rights imply that first rights for the work have been sold.
The right of a publisher to use your work in a format other than its own hardcover or paperback editions. This includes film, foreign, audio, and (sometimes) electronic rights, in addition to book-club reprint editions, publication of selections in anthologies or textbooks, and first or second serial rights.
The right to publish English-language versions of your book in all countries. With publishing conglomerates increasingly going international, many publishers demand worldwide rights.
For an excellent explanation of the law and your rights, visit the website for the U.S. Copyright Office. Another resource is The Writer’s Legal Guide: An Authors Guild Desk Reference (Allworth Press, 2002).
You may also look for information from the Authors Guild, the National Writers Union, or a local chapter of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. In addition, The Poets & Writers Guide to the Book Deal, which was edited by the staff of Poets & Writers Magazine, includes an overview of the publishing process, with an article titled, "Anatomy of an Author Agreement," which can help you understand the business of granting rights to publishers.