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.
Before signing a book contract, it is best to consult an agent or a lawyer with publishing experience.
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 e-books. In some contracts, this may be labeled as “e-book rights.” Ideally, you want to grant verbatim text English language rights for “electronic rights” or “e-book rights.” Other features such as audio or video features may be labeled as “enhanced e-book rights” or “multimedia.” As new technologies are developed, the definition of electronic rights will continue to evolve.
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 print a work a second time. Reprint rights imply that first rights for the work have been sold.
The right of a publisher to license your work to others, which includes first and second serial rights, audio rights, film rights, foreign rights, translation rights, book-club rights, the right to reprint excerpts of your work, rights to electronic editions and versions, performance rights, and merchandising rights.
The right to publish English-language versions of your book in all countries. As more publishing conglomerates are operating internationally, 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, 2013).
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.
- Glossary of Rights
- Other Resources