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Rights: What They Mean and Why They're Important
by Marg Gilks

Return to Rights & Copyright · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

It's important to understand what rights you're selling or licensing away, not only to protect your interests, but to keep you out of legal hot water. Understanding rights can also help you make more money on a piece by -- legally -- reselling it again and again.

So, what are rights?

When you write something -- be it an article, short story, book, even a letter -- you automatically own copyright to that material. What you've written belongs to you. You don't have to fill out any forms or send away any registrations; the act of creation itself gives you copyright.

FNASR: Starting with the Basics

When a publication "buys your piece," you're not really selling it. You are selling (or licensing) to the publication only certain rights governing the use of your piece. In the absence of a contract or any stated rights, it's usually understood that you're selling "first" rights only, but it never hurts to make sure. This is your property, after all. If a publication's writers' guidelines don't state what rights they purchase, you can state what rights you're offering to sell them in your cover letter: "I am offering you FNASR on this article..."

"Ah, there's that cryptic FNASR again," you're thinking. "What the heck does it mean?"

FNASR stands for "First North American Serial Rights." When you sell FNASR, you are selling a publication the right to be the first in North America to publish the material once. Then, unless you've granted other rights or licenses as well, all copyright to that material reverts back to you.

So what do you do, once the piece reverts back to you? You can never sell FNASR to it again, obviously. But you can sell Reprint Rights, Anthology Rights, First British Rights, First European Rights, and First Australian Rights (to name just a few). If the publication that purchased FNASR was a print-only effort, you can sell First Electronic Rights, and so on. (One word of advice: save First Electronic Rights for last. Because of the universality of the Internet, if your piece appears there first, many publications will not consider purchasing other rights to the piece.)

Don't ever sell all rights to your story, however, or it no longer belongs to you. Yes, that's what All Rights means -- you are giving up any right to that piece. Should you decide to include it in an anthology of your works later on, you will have to request or purchase back the right to do so from the publication that purchased All Rights from you.

Here are some of the rights that you'll see in writers' guidelines, and what they mean:

General Rights

First Rights

"First" rights give a publication the right to be first to publish your material in either a particular medium or a particular location. FNASR, for example, generally applies to print publication, within North America. First British rights means the right to publish a piece first within Britain -- even if it has already been published somewhere else. First electronic rights means the right to be first to provide the material in electronic format. Note that one can sell many different variations on "first" rights, as long as these variations don't overlap.

One-time Rights

Just what it says: the publication is purchasing the right to print your piece once and only once. This is not the same as First Rights. First Rights means the publication is buying the right to be the first to publish your piece. If they buy One-time Rights, they will be allowed to print a piece once, but not necessarily first; the piece may have already appeared elsewhere.

Reprint Rights, or Second Serial Rights

When you offer these rights, you have informed the publication that first rights for the piece have been sold, but that the publication can purchase the right from you to print the piece again, as a reprint. Or, to phrase it differently, the right to print the piece a second time.

It's important to note that many publications consider self-published material, or material posted to an author's web site, as previously published. Therefore, first rights to such material cannot be sold to those publications. Check with the publication before offering a piece that has been posted on your website; reprint rights often pay less than first rights.

If you sell Nonexclusive Reprint Rights, you retain the right to sell reprint rights to the same piece to more than one publication, even at the same time. (See "Exclusive vs. Nonexclusive," below.)

Anthology Rights

This gives the publisher of an anthology -- a collection of shorter pieces -- the right to publish your piece in that collection. Anthologies often purchase reprint material. Many magazines that put out annual "Best of" collections negotiate anthology rights with authors whose work has appeared in their magazines.

First World English

The right to be the first in the entire English-speaking world to publish the piece. You won't be able to sell First American, First Canadian, First British, First Australian or FNASR if you sell this right.

You may have realized by now that in some cases, it pays to think small. Sell First World English, and you've eliminated the opportunity to sell First Rights to every English-speaking country in the world. But if you first sell FNASR to that piece, you can then turn around and sell First British, First Australian, First European -- indeed, rights for any geographic area that FNASR does not encompass. If you keep careful track of what geographic rights you've already sold, you can sell your piece around the world, one geographic area at a time.

You can also sell language rights to your piece. A publication may purchase the right to print your story or article in Japanese, German, Russian, or Spanish. These are often called Translation Rights: Spanish Language Translation Rights, and so on.

Excerpt Rights

This means that the purchaser can use excerpts from your piece in other instances. One example of this is the use of an excerpt in an educational environment. An author sold "ten-year nonexclusive excerpt rights" to his story so that portions could be used in a standardized test program.

It may be worth mentioning here that small portions of a work can usually be quoted -- with proper attribution -- in an article or essay by another author. This is termed "fair use." There are legal guidelines pertaining to what is regarded as "fair use," however, and these guidelines vary from country to country. If you intend to quote extensively, or would like to quote material whose use may be denied to outside parties, you should always ask permission from the original copyright owner.

Electronic Rights

First Electronic Rights or First World Electronic Rights

This is the right to be the first to publish the piece on the Internet, via e-mail, as a downloadable file or program, on CD or tape, etc. Another variation is Electronic Publishing Rights in the English Language, very similar to First World English, only limited to electronic media.

First Electronic Rights are separate rights that must be negotiated separately from FNASR. When you sell FNASR, you are not automatically selling First Electronic Rights in the deal, unless this is specifically stated.

Many publications also distinguish between Electronic rights (which include the right to publish material on a CD-ROM or other "physical" electronic medium), and Internet or Online rights, which apply only to publication on the Internet and/or via e-mail (as in an e-mail newsletter). If a publication doesn't make this distinction, you might wish to write it into your contract, so that you can retain the right to publish something on CD-ROM after it has been published online.

Archival Rights

Here's one that's becoming more and more prevalent on the Internet: "the right to archive" or "the right to make [works] available" on the Web. This means that the publication will keep your piece on file and accessible by visitors to that site, long after its first appearance. As long as your piece is archived or being made available, it's considered "in print." It can be very difficult -- and tricky -- to sell rights to a piece being archived. If a webzine wants the right to archive your piece, make sure it's only for a limited length of time.

Sold Once, Gone Forever

Selling certain rights means giving up the right to use or republish your work again -- ever. These include:

All Rights

When you sell all rights to your work, you can never use that article or story again, in its current form. While you are still nominally the copyright holder, you have no rights left to exploit. To resell that material, you would have to create a substantially different version. In addition, the purchaser of "all rights" is free to reprint your material, sell it to other publications for reprinting, include it in an anthology, post it online, or sell it to some other agency, all without paying you any additional money.

Work for Hire

Work for Hire is similar to "All Rights," except that in this case, you have no claim to copyright at all. Most "work for hire" is done within the scope of employment, or when working for a commission. However, many publications also expect freelance writers to sign work-for-hire agreements. When you do this, you are transferring not just your rights but your actual copyright to the publication (or employer). You have no rights to the material, which can be altered, resold, published under another name, or used in any other fashion the publication desires, without additional compensation to you. Worse, if you write a somewhat modified version of the material to sell somewhere else, you might actually be guilty of "infringing" on the company's copyright, if the new piece is similar enough to the Work-For-Hire piece.

Obviously, it is in your best interest to avoid Work-For-Hire and All Rights agreements unless you have no other alternative!

Exclusive vs. Nonexclusive Rights

What does it mean when a publication wants "exclusive" or "nonexclusive" rights to something? When a publication asks for exclusive rights, they are asking that the piece not appear anywhere else while they are exercising their right to it. There is often a limit on the length of time a publisher will request exclusive rights -- one month, three months, one year -- and then that piece may appear elsewhere.

Nonexclusive is just the opposite; Publisher A may feature your piece on their website for a year, but because their right to do so is nonexclusive, you can sell the piece to Publisher B and have it appear elsewhere at the same time. Just make sure Publisher B doesn't want exclusivity!

The "nonexclusive right to display, copy, publish, distribute, transmit and sell digital reproductions" means you are allowing your material to be sold elsewhere, by someone else. This does not mean that you will see any profits from these arrangements. It does mean that you can sell your own work to other places at the same time -- but be aware that the original purchaser may make your material available to fee-based databases or other content sources without ever reimbursing you another penny.

There are nearly as many rights as there are publishers or situations that call for specific rights to be defined. Most can be deciphered with a bit of study. Here is one that might take some work: "the option for first right of refusal of publication of the Work, in whole or in part, in book form." This gives the publisher the right to purchase a story for their anthology at the same price offered by another publisher, or to refuse it and allow the other publisher to purchase the piece -- i.e., they're requesting first dibs. Remember, if you're not sure what rights are wrapped up in your contract's terminology, you can ask the publisher to define them.

So pay careful attention to that next contract or agreement you're offered. Those are your rights -- and your writing -- that you're signing away.

Find Out More:

Copyright, Public Domain, and the Wild Wild Web, by Moira Allen

The Nitty-Gritty of Copyright, by Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Selling All Rights: Right or Wrong?, by Moira Allen

Top Ten Questions About Copyright Permissions, by David Taylor

Understanding Rights and Copyright, by Moira Allen

Copyright © 2000 Marg Gilks
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Marg Gilks' short stories, poetry, and articles have been appearing in newspapers, newsletters, magazines, and e-zines since 1977. She considers writing fiction, especially sf/f, the ultimate form of escapism -- in what other field can you create your own universe? Contact her with feedback and queries through Scripta Word Services, her freelance editing business: http://www.scripta-word-services.com/.


Copyright © 2017 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
All materials on this site are the property of their authors and may not be reprinted
without the author's written permission, unless otherwise indicated.
For more information please contact Moira Allen, Editor

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