Rights can work for you, but marketing those rights takes time away from creating new work…unless you have an agent, but that’s another topic.
Disclaimer: Not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. You make your own decisions regarding your own contracts.
Note: This article contains affiliate links. ‘Kay? We good? Let’s go.
At a conference that I attended once, we got into the discussion of rights and licensing copyright over oatmeal and sheep yogurt. By the end of the conversation one of the people at the table called me “Prince.”
She said it as a joke. I took it as a compliment.
If you are a writer, you need to be aware of your rights to your property. Your goal, as is the goal to whoever you are licensing the copyright to your work, to retain as much ownership as possible.
Now, you might be saying that it’s not all that serious, why should it matter, right? You only want to be published. It does matter, though, because you don’t know if you’re writing the next “A Christmas Carol.”
Also, you want control over your work especially if you are a marginalized writer. If you get to keep your film rights then you can negotiate how you want your property used. If not, you might find your Korean-American grandpa character played by a Scottish white woman.
Below is an example of how this could work:
Let’s take a short story. You send it off for publication and they want it. Yeah! Let’s do the happy dance. You enjoy the moment. Then you get the contract and it’s for all rights. An all rights contract is almost the same as work for hire. The folks retain all rights to your work. Just like your employer retains all rights to work done on company time and for the company.
But, because you have already decided that you will never sign an all rights contract, you go back and say that to the editor. Editor magically comes up with a standard contract that asks for first rights – which are rights to publish the story first and 6-month exclusivity which means that you can’t submit the work as a reprint somewhere else and you can’t publish it yourself anywhere for six months.
That seems fair to you and you sign the contract.
You get the publication, you get payment and in six months you get your story back to do whatever you want to with it. You decide you want to self-publish it. So you do and it just sits there selling a copy now and then.
The story catches the attention of an editor who is compiling a bundle of the same topic. The bundle goes on sale and you get a check again for a story that you wrote three years ago.
And you can sell it again.
You license a story for a short story anthology. Yeah, paycheck! As part of the contract, the publisher has a clause that sets the terms if they want to compile your story with other stories as a sort of best of anthology or special themed anthology. Exclusivity is 3 months. Seems fair. So you sign the contract.
After 3 months you self publish the story. It sells a couple of copies, but the short story anthology is still in print, still getting your name out there and you go on and write other stories set in the same world.
A couple of years later, you receive notification that your story is being compiled in a themed anthology with other writers. You get another check per your contract.
Meanwhile, you’re sending this story out for reprint markets. It might sell again or it might not. If it does, that’s another check.
Are you starting to see how this would work for, not a big name author, but someone just starting out?
This is the magic of negotiating your contract. I was taught that all professionals negotiate contracts and it is something that is expected. When one of my mentors told me that editors want you to negotiate your contracts, I thought she was kidding…. Until I experienced it myself.
Your stories and poems are intellectual property. You know that poetry can wind up on posters, mugs, greeting cards, right? Those are licensing deals. Those folks, if they kept their rights, are getting paid. Repeat. Poetry can be lucrative if you keep your rights.
The first thing to do is to get educated and also to know what you’re willing to do and not to do. I Make the decision before the contract came whirling into my inbox.
That’s the first step. Figure out what you will and will not negotiate before you sit down. Be able to walk away.
Prince originally was not the Prince of the I will sue you if you even think of using my music without my permission. He had to lose his rights and then buy them all back. If, and I will repeat, if we as marginalized people want to control our images, we must control our intellectual property.
Here are some resources for you to get you started:
Article on Prince’s Control of his music
Dean Wesley Smith on the magic bakery – a good overview of copyright
The Business Rusch
Every Thursday award-winning author and editor Kristin Kathryn Rusch posts an article about the business of writing. It’s free. It’s consistent. You may not agree with everything that she says, but you will learn something.
Michael Jackson, Inc.: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of a Billion-Dollar Empire
by Zack O’Malley Greenburg
Amazon Link: http://a.co/cav4eJV
This book first came to my attention though Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s blog. It is an excellent book and easy to read discussion of Michael Jackson’s business dealings. Basically, he sought to own the rights to music. Because he was so knowledgeable about music, he knew what was valuable and sought to purchase the rights to those songs. If publishers are sharks, music companies are barracudas. It can be helpful to know how others have navigated these waters.
Playing the Short Game: How to Market and Sell Short Fiction
by Douglas Smith
My favorite, favorite, favorite book on the business of short story writing. The primer on contract clauses in short story contracts is worth the price of the book. Very accessible.
Copyright Handbook, The: What Every Writer Needs to Know
by Stephen Fishman
He who has the most information in a negotiation, wins. Bottom line. So, it’s time to get serious about learning about copyright. It’s a dry subject, yes, but this is your business. I have a friend who has in her contract she has rights to select the audiobook narrator. Because her main character is a Native American, she wants, if possible, to have a Native American narrator. She can do that because she negotiated for it.
People will let you give up your rights, if you let them. Don’t. We’re the creators. We have the power. As long we don’t sign it away.
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