Copyright, literally, is “the right to copy.” It guarantees the authors of creative works–including books, artworks, films, recordings, and photographs–the exclusive right to allow others to copy and distribute the work, by whatever means and in whatever media currently exist. It also prohibits copying and distributing without the author’s permission, and includes moral rights: the right of attribution (the right to be named as the creator of the work) and the right of integrity (the right to control changes to the work).
In countries that are signatory to the Berne Convention,, the international source for copyright law (including the USA, Canada, the UK, Europe, and many other countries), you own copyright, automatically, as soon your work is fixed in tangible form–i.e., the minute you write the words. Your ownership extends beyond your death–between 50 and 70 years, depending on which country you’re in.
Contained within copyright is the entire bundle of rights that authors can grant to others or utilize themselves. For book authors, that includes primary rights (the right to publish in print and digital formats) and subsidiary rights (the right to make translations and audio recordings and films, to create serializations or abridgements or derivative works…the list goes on, and continues to expand as technology makes different forms of publication and distribution possible).
When you sign a publishing contract, you are granting the publisher permission to exploit (i.e., to utilize for profit) some or all of your rights, and/or to license those rights to others, in exchange for a share of income. Because you own the copyright, granting rights doesn’t mean you lose or abandon those rights: merely that you authorize someone else to exploit them for a time, either exclusively (the publisher is the only one that can exploit them) or nonexclusively (you can simultaneously grant them to others).
Eventually, once the contract term expires, or the publisher decides the book is no longer profitable, the publisher will cease publication and terminate its claim on your rights. This is known as rights reversion. Sometimes reversion is automatic (as in a contract that extends for a set period of years). Sometimes you can request reversion after certain conditions have been met (as in a life-of-copyright contract). Once your rights have reverted, you are free to re-sell them or to use them yourself, as you choose.
For many readers of this blog, the above will seem pretty elementary. But confusion about the difference between rights and copyright is common–not just among authors (one especially frequent misplaced fear is that granting rights to a publisher means you lose them forever), but among inexperienced publishers. If I had a dollar for every small press contract I’ve seen that hopelessly conflates rights and copyright (for instance, taking possession of copyright but reserving a variety of subsidiary rights to the author), my husband and I could treat ourselves to a very fancy dinner.
Some suggestions on how to untangle the confusion and protect yourself:
– First and foremost, understand copyright and the rights it gives you.
There’s detailed information on the Copyright page of the Writer Beware website (including a discussion of various copyright myths). Countries’ copyright offices, such as the US Copyright Office, the UK Intellectual Property Office, and the Australian Copyright Council, are also good sources of information.
As always in publishing, the more you know, the more likely it is that you’ll recognize bad contract clauses when you run across them.
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