Protecting Our Body of Writing from Theft

What you write is yours unless you sell it outright!

In the midst of working for others by allowing them to use my writing, writing a book myself, and various other writing projects, How do I ensure protection for my writing?

The first thing I am going to do is plug the Author’s Guild. Another writer shared about them yesterday, and being a member of the organization I ditto’ed him in his assurance of value. This organization is all about writer’s rights and ensuring our copyrights are protected from theft.

The second thing I am going to explain is how copyright works. Anything you write is legally protected under the law as your body of work. There is a caveat for this as it relates to writing you do in the performance of your duties on the job. One of the things I did for my last employer was write quite a few content pieces as it related to updating of policies and procedures, or just outright writing new ones due to the age of what had been previously provided. It had been about ten years for many of the documents and there were legal changes that had not be incorporated into the documents.

I was writing for their benefit, so, even though I was the writer, copyright belonged to the company in this instance. “Works made for hire,” which is a copyright statue protects companies from having to pay things like royalties as well as additional costs associated with intellectual property to people they are already paying for their work. Depending on what you have written, this can really stink. If you come up with a million dollar idea, it belongs to your company not you. It becomes their million dollar idea, not yours.

Any writing not used for works made for hire belongs solely to the writer unless they sell the work and the contract specifies passing of the copyright to the new owner. Copyright protects a work as your intellectual property against anyone else reproducing it, selling it, or distributing it without your express permission.

Usually when someone wants to use your work, you assign use rights of various kinds to them. Understanding use rights helps us, the writers, to ensure only those people who we authorize can do anything with our work. A good example is right here on Medium. Everything produced here is our work. Even when we publish with a publication, we can withdraw our pieces any time we choose unless we have published something for money and have a contract saying otherwise with the publication. Even then, the writing is still ours, we just have to wait out the period set in the contract before we can use it somewhere else.

Kinds of Use Rights:

  1. First rights
  2. One-time rights
  3. Second or re-print rights
  4. First North American Serial Rights (FNASR)
  5. Electronic Rights
  6. All Rights
  7. Work For Hire Rights

First rights gives exclusive first use rights to a publisher for publishing your works. As I have been reading through the legal details of contracts through the Author’s Guild, I have learned that writers need to be very careful here to specify limits on this so that they do not lose revenue by being very general to the publisher’s advantage and the writer’s loss. One way of doing that is to specify in the contract what categories the first use rights covers. For instance if your work is part of a series in a magazine/periodical, then you want to specify that you are giving first serial rights. If you are going to be publishing internationally, then you want to specify first international rights. In this way you protect yourself and your work. We may love writing, but many of us do it professionally and want to generate income regarding our work. In only limited ways are we giving away work for free.

One-time rights allow a publisher or publication to publish a piece of your work once, and its a non-exclusive contract, so that you can publish that same work anywhere else you see fit.

This often goes hand in hand with FNASR. FNASR is when you give rights to publications like magazines and newspaper to reproduce your work for the first time in their publication. This way they get first dibs on the exposure your work brings and the income from it. Usually in a contract a publisher will seek to put a time limit on the work before it can be reproduced anywhere else.

This brings us to second rights. It is like it sounds. You have already been published somewhere else and now are giving another publication the right to publish your work. Whenever we have published elsewhere, even on Medium, we are required to advise a publication interested in our work that it has been previously published and where, so that they can assess benefit to their publication and value. Typically the value of reprinted work is lower because the audience may have already come into contact with the work.

Electronic rights is an extremely tricky and complicated matter right now. Many publications have gone electronic as have books and various other forms of writing. This includes writing that appears on things like educational CD’s. Due to the complexity, copyright protection and contracts for this need to be very specific, almost to the point of redundancy in order to really ensure your work isn’t used where you are not wanting to see it. Of all the categories, this is the one we writer’s must be most careful of.

A big one is “All Rights.” This means that you can never reproduce your own work again. You have sold all rights now and in the future. If you ever want it back, you would have to buy it back. The challenge for this is making sure you are really willing to give up all copyrights to your work. What happens if it gets picked up by a studio for a movie? You would have no skin in the game so to speak. Its no longer yours, though your name would be attached as the author.

I have already spoken a bit about works for hire. These works, whether in a company for policies and procedures, or maybe a newsletter, or within a publication itself, like with a magazine or newspaper, belong, not to the writer, but to the employer unless a writer has a contract stating otherwise. Locking down our works and reproduction rights is tricky, but very necessary when it comes to our writing being a job for us. We work to make money to pay our bills. We are also worth the fees paid for use of our work. It is up to us to protect ourselves and our words.

Many writer’s simply don’t know their rights. They don’t know how to protect themselves and their work, but one of the first things I did was make sure I learned the do’s and don’ts of my rights so that I could make sure my work didn’t appear anywhere else but where I want it to be.

These are some copyright basics if you haven’t thought about it, or haven’t researched it on your own yet. You can read up in more detail on the U.S. Coprights Office website.

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