Know Your Writing Rights

When submitting things for payment, whether it’s web content, print, magazines or books, you need to know your rights and what rights to your writing you are selling. Before too long you’ll be old hat at knowing these terms, but until then, you’ll probably want to look up the rights the publisher/publication wants from you to fully understand what you’re giving them, what it’s worth and what you can do with your writing after you sell it.

Before I begin talking about some of the most common terms for rights to your writing, let me start by saying: ALWAYS ask and preferably get it in writing, what exactly the rights are that the publisher/publication wants to buy from you. I know someone who wrote some content she gave away to someone FOR FREE to put in his newsletter, and when she later put the same content up on another site, he told her that he owned it… and he threatened to sue her if she didn’t pay him for using her own content!

(shaking head)

Okay, on to rights:

Exclusive Rights:

Exclusive rights might mean exclusive print rights, exclusive electronic rights, or just state exclusive rights. Exclusive rights are the highest level of rights you can grant someone buying or using your content, and as such, payment for exclusive rights usually tends to be more than for other rights. This means that the publisher has the right to, on your behalf, do all the things you as the copyright holder can do, EXCEPT to resell the content. They can promote it, share it, print it, disseminate it, and do pretty much whatever they want to it, as long as the writing stays intact and your byline stays on it. You can do the same to the content, as long as it is with their publication/site, but you cannot sell it to anyone else besides that one publication. They also cannot sell it to anyone else without renumeration to you.

Included in exclusive rights are: exclusive North American rights, exclusive American rights, exclusive world wide rights, etc. These really only specify the area of the world in which your rights will/can be used. For example, if you sell a publisher exclusive North American rights and a publisher from Australia wants to buy your content, you can sell it to them as either non-exclusive or exclusive Australian rights.

I try whenever possible not to give exclusive rights unless absolutely necessary or unless I’m absolutely certain I never want to use that content again, for any reason. However, as long as I keep my byline (name on the writing), and particularly if it’s a reputable publication that can boost my career, I will grant exclusive rights for the right price.

Now, keep in mind, just exclusive does NOT mean you are selling your copyright to the person buying the rights. Selling the copyright allows the publisher to remove your name from it if they want, change your writing without notifying you, add to or take away from it, and pretty much do whatever they want to your writing, and you can’t do a thing about it. Be very certain that the publisher you submit to understands that EXCLUSIVE rights does NOT mean you are selling copyright. If a publisher wants to buy my copyright and/or remove my byline, they best pay me for my writing, and pay me well.


Non-exclusive rights means that you are granting the publisher the right to print, disseminate, share, use and promote your content and you can keep the same rights too, including the right to sell it non-exclusively to someone else. Some publishers/sites like to buy non-exclusive rights, but ask for exclusivity for a period of time. For example, Suite101 asks that you give them exclusive rights for one year, then it changes to non-exclusive thereafter.

Be sure if the publisher wants non-exclusive rights to your writing that you know what exactly this means to you for selling your content elsewhere. Many times, anthology submissions to contests and books in print will let you keep the rights to your writing for use elsewhere as long as it’s not another anthology, things like that.

First Publication/Print Rights:

This one is pretty simple… it means the publisher/publication gets first right to print or publisher. This usually means that as soon as the writing is no longer in print or under contract, you can do pretty much whatever you want to with the writing, except first print/publication rights.

When I had three of my short stories published in an anthology, the only rights the publisher asked for were First Publication Rights, but the contract specified that the publisher kept those rights exclusively for as long as the book was in print. Books can stay in print indefinitely, so you are essentially selling your rights to the publisher indefinitely too.

However, some publishers have contracts that last 1-3 years or more, and the rights will revert back to you when the contract expires, even if the book is still in print.

Again, the point here is to ask and be specific about what rights.

Electronic Rights:

This means the publisher keeps either exclusive or non-exclusive rights to your content electronically – this usually means digital, video, audio, published on a website, via email, e-newsletter or ezine.

Generally, if the publisher asks for exclusive electronic rights, you can’t put the content in any electronic medium of delivery, but you could still sell exclusive rights to print.

Print Rights:

Usually a publisher/publication will specify if they want electronic rights or print rights or both. If they only list one but not the other, you do have a legal right to re-sell your content in the other medium. Print rights mean just that: in print. This means on paper, magazine, book, newspaper, etc. If the publisher only wants print rights, you will retain electronic rights to your content.

Publication Rights:

This is the one that is tricky and many publishers use to get more rights than the writer often is aware. Publication can mean print or electronic. If a publisher is asking for publication rights, then chances are, you are selling them BOTH print and electronic publication rights unless you specifically ask and have them clarify IN WRITING.

Now, there are other terms, like World-Wide, in Perpetuity, etc, that I’ll probably discuss in a later blog, but for now, these are the ones you’ll likely come across most frequently.

Here’s what’s important for you to remember, whatever rights you sell to the publisher/publication, know what they are and GET IT IN WRITING. In fact, get it in writing even if you are giving your writing away to someone from free. You don’t want someone to turn around and sue you for payment because you resold an article you no longer had rights to, particularly when you gave the content away anyway!

Read any contract you sign carefully. At one time, there was a standard clause an author friend of mine found in the PublishAmerica vanity press contract that basically said the author agreed they would never, ever publish the book with any other publisher, even when the contract with PA had ended. Just one more reason why no one should ever publish with PA, for any reason, ever.

But I’m digressing.

My point about knowing your rights is, you can get in a bunch of legal trouble and financial trouble too if you don’t pay attention to what rights you grant and follow those rights when you resell content.

My recommendation – if you sell exclusive electronic and print rights in perpetuity, you’d best be sure you’re getting paid big bucks for it…. Many freelance writers don’t realize that they have the ability to request and negotiate with
ublishers/publications about what rights they will grant. On more than one occasion, I have successfully negotiated selling lesser rights without losing any pay once I explained to the publisher why I was wanting the rights.

The main thing publishers want to focus on is the bottom line, ya’ll. They want to make money and inform, pretty much just like you do, so they are going to try to get the best writing at the cheapest rates. If you can negotiate with a publisher paying a little bit less to you in exchange for you keeping more of your rights, you can turn around and resell that content and make more money than giving exclusive rights to just one publisher.

Also, the publication probably only really needs exclusive rights for a short time, like 6-months to a year, and then they won’t have to worry about your content competing with your content on another site, publication, etc. Offer the publisher full exclusive rights for a period of time, and then 6-months to a year down the road, you can tweak it and resell and make more money. convince the publisher this won’t hurt their bottom line, and they’ll likely be willing to give you more rights.

Remember, you own your writing, just like you own your house or an appliance or your car, and as such, you can decide how much it’s worth. Unlike your house and your car, though, you actually get a say in HOW your writing is used and displayed. You have that right. Use it. Most importantly, GET IT IN WRITING. If you have to sign a contract and ask for an explanation of rights, don’t think an email is enough to stand in court if you sign that contract without any changes. YOU have the right to ask the contract be changed, or to change it and sign it and ask them to approve it.

Get it in writing, don’t sign anything about rights that you don’t fully understand, know your rights and get paid what your writing and the rights to it are worth.

Any questions?

Love and stuff,