Know your rights – owning your work

Congratulations, you’ve landed your first contract. A publisher (whether book, newspaper, magazine, Web site, or some other entity) wants to publish your piece. That deserves a celebration. Pop the cork! Enjoy.

Okay. After you’ve taken the time to savor the moment, you need to review your contract. All parties involved want to make the best deal for themselves, so make sure you know what rights you are giving up.

  • First serial rights / First rights – The publication will be the first to publish your piece. You retain the option to submit and publish the piece elsewhere.
  • One-time rights – You permit the publication the right to publish your piece once. (This could be your first printing or a reprint.) You retain the option to submit and publish the piece elsewhere.
  • Second serial rights – You permit the publication the right to be the second to publish your piece.
  • First North American serial rights (FNASR) – You permit the publication the right to publish your piece in a periodical. It’s common for a length of time to be added to this stipulation, such as “for six months after publication,” meaning they own your piece for six months before you can shop it elsewhere. (Terms can range from a month to several years.) It also means that if the publisher wants to publish your piece in different forms, they will negotiate separate contracts and pay for each.
  • Electronic rights – You’re giving permission to publish your piece electronically.

Beware of these:

  • All rights – You agree to give up all rights to your piece forever. You allow the publisher to do whatever it wants with your piece. You receive a onetime fee regardless of what is done with your piece in the future. (You could pursue buying the rights back in the future.)
  • Work for hire – Your written piece becomes the property of the publisher and the publisher can reprint it however and whenever it wants without compensating you further.
  • All rights for all media that exist now or will exist in the future – There’s always new technology on the horizon, so this caveat covers all ways to distribute written work including turning your piece into a longer piece, movie, book, digital recording, and so on. If you agree to this term, you’ll receive your one-time fee with no recourse for additional income.

If you are faced with any of the above three terms, negotiate for a better deal. Push for more money or limit the publisher’s rights in some way. (For instance, depending on circumstances, you can offer to not resell your piece to a competitive publication.)

It is crucial to read every contract you sign. Your agent may tell you it’s a great deal, and pages and pages of contractual lingo may be intimidating, but this is your piece, know what you are signing away. If you don’t understand something, research and ask questions until you do understand.

And, of course, you always have the right to say “no, thank you.” It may be tough, but it may be the right thing for you to do.

Celebrating receipt of your first contract is still worth doing, so do it and then delve into the contract.

Two resources to help with contract terms:

National Writers Union

American Society of Journalists and Authors – do a search for ‘serial rights’, etc.


How have you celebrated your first contract?

Lisa Jackson is an editor, writer, and chocolate lover. She’s addicted to Sudoku, cafés, and words. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to network with writing professionals on a weekly basis — and you can, too!

5 thoughts on “Know your rights – owning your work

  1. I recently got a job as a staff writer for a media website – they gave me a “Content Writing Agreement” which I signed (I didn’t know any better I guess). I get paid $150 per article between 500-800 words – not bad for a newbie and I write about 4-8 articles a month. The contract states it will have complete and proprietary ownership of the delivered articles. Once delivered, the writer will have no rights to them and won’t be allowed to use them for any purpose.”
    So then…now that I have signed the contract, can I still negotiate for other rights for my other articles?
    Or am I stuck? The good part is that three of my articles have been syndicated – two by McClatchy and one by Hearst. Looks great on my newbie writer res. It’s only been about three months since I landed this job.
    Should I count my blessings, not make waves and consider the signing over of my rights as part of my “dues” for getting a career boost – especially since the pay isn’t so bad and the exposure is working for me? These really aren’t creative writing – more like informative articles and I wouldn’t call them my best work.
    What think?

  2. Always start with due diligence A rotten contract with a great publisher trumps a great contract with a rotten publisher. .A.Rights Granted.. B.Author must approve publishing contracts perhaps with minor exceptions . F.Termination at will on reasonable notice e.g. 30 days to conclude publishing contracts in process after reasonable trial limit to 1 year .

  3. Hi Laura,
    I can’t offer any legal advice, as I’m not in the legal field, but it seems you have a good understanding of what you’ve signed. Whether you pursue negotiating for something better or not is up to you – it could work out to your benefit, or you could end up without any contract.

    It’s all about what you feel comfortable with in regard to your writing. If you don’t have any desire to ever use the articles you are writing for this contract, it seems that you’re doing what you want. 🙂

    -Lisa

  4. Pingback: New for You: Best of the Blogs | Words at Work

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