Copyrights, First Rights, Which Rights to Sell

In my last post, I wrote about the difference between a work for hire and who owns the copyright to what you write. Upon re-reading that post and thanks to a tug on my sleeve by a savvy reader, I realized that there is another area of copyright ownership that may require clarification, especially in this age of writing for the web.

First North American Serial Rights
First North American serial rights, second serial rights, geographic rights, and electronic rights are all copyrights that you can sell for articles, poetry, essays, and other documents you write, as long as you are not writing a work for hire (see my previous post Work for Hire vs. Copyright).

When you write an article for a newspaper or magazine, you are selling first serial rights. That means that the publication has the right to be the first to publish your article, poem, story, or essay.

Remember to include the words ‘First North American Serial Rights’ in the upper right corner of the first page of your manuscript to make clear to the editor that these are the only rights you are selling. This restricts publication to the U.S. and Canada.

This is important because a lot of publications also publish online and, if you’re a professional writer, you no doubt believe, as do I, that writers should be paid for any additional use of their work. If the editor wants to purchase additional rights, the time to discuss this is before you sign the contract.

By selling only first North American serial rights, after your work is published, you have the right to resell it to another publication. You can also include it in a collection of your work in any form you may choose: hard copy, electronic, video.

Second Serial Rights
When reprints of your work appear in another magazine, you are selling second serial rights. You can sell reprints to several publications at the same time because these are not exclusive rights.

Geographic Rights
Another right you can sell is geographic rights, which allows you to reserve the right to sell your work to publications in other countries.

Selling only first North American serial rights, when you first sell an article opens the door to selling in other geographic regions because, again, it restricts publication to the U.S. and Canada.

Some writers sell the exact same article, with no changes, over and over again. Other writers make slight changes to more tightly target the specific audience of each publication they sell their material to.

Electronic Rights
Electronic rights are not nearly as clear as first North American serial rights and second serial rights. When you write for online publications, blogs, or web sites, most of the same copyright rules apply as for first serial rights, however, there may be some areas you will need to address.

For example, can the publisher archive your work? This means the publisher can save your work in a database and let their readers download it to their computers and handheld devices or read it online, making it forever available.

Also, keep in mind that when you sell to a print publication, they may have an online version of their magazine. Check to make sure you know if you are also selling them electronic rights. If you are, you will want to know how extensively they can use your work.

Since this is not a very clear area when it comes to copyrights, it’s a good idea to specify clearly which rights you are selling in your contract with each publisher.

SImultaneous Rights
Other rights you can sell include simultaneous rights and all rights. When you sell simultaneous rights, you are assuring the publishers that you are selling to publications whose circulations do not overlap with theirs. This requires some research on your part to make sure that the publications you are selling to have separate circulation areas.

All Rights
Selling all rights means that you are selling all rights to your work forever, you will only receive one payment for it, no matter how many times that publisher reuses it, and you may not ever sell it again because you have relinquished all rights to it.

For some writers, this is not an issue because they repurpose their articles. Let me explain. It’s possible to sell all rights to an article and then resell another article about that same topic, after you have significantly changed or rewritten it to target a different publication and audience.

This requires some work on your part, however, since you’ve already done the research, it should be easier and less time consuming than having to do new research to write an article on an entirely different topic.

Observing the Legalities for Freelance Writing
Always remember to have your attorney, who should be familiar with contracts for freelance work, review any contract before you sign it. Ask your attorney to make sure you are only selling the rights you want to sell and to help you understand exactly which rights you are selling, especially if the publication’s contract states that the publication wants to purchase additional rights.

The intricacies of copyright law may seem complicated at first, but you will get the hang of it. Copyright law protects your rights and your income as a writer, so remember to include which rights you are selling on every piece you sell.

I’d like to invite you to share your copyright stories with Writers Inkwell readers. Tell us which rights you sold and which rights publishers wanted to purchase. How did you resolve any differences you had with your publisher regarding rights you were willing to sell?

Dip your pen into the inkwell and tell us your story.

The Writers Inkwell Muse

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