7 Types of Copyright for Freelance Writers and Book Authors

If you’re a published author or freelance writer, you know that contracts and agreements vary from publisher to publisher. If you’re new to writing, the thrill of getting a magazine article assignment or book contract from a publisher may erase all thoughts of copyright (if you knew anything about copyright to begin with!).

Keep your wits about you, fellow scribes! Writing is a business. Protect yourself by learning about different types of copyright and writing contracts – even if you have a literary agent. It is essential that you consider all elements involved in a contract, verbal or written. Know what you as the author might gain or lose. Successful writers have to know more than what types of magazine articles to write. For example, you might want to repurpose your article and resell it to a market that is different from the first publication. If so, you need to know what rights to sell to the first publisher.

Here’s a brief, boring explanation of various types of copyright for freelance writers and book authors, including definitions of first serial rights, reprint rights, one time rights, all rights, electronic rights, subsidiary rights, and dramatic, TV, and motion picture rights.

How about I jazz up this copyright information for writers with a writing quote or two? That should keep your motivation to write alive. And if you’re motivated to write, you increase the chances that you’ll actually need to know what type of copyright a writer should retain.

7 Types of Copyright for Freelance Writers and Book Authors

“I approach my work with a passionate intensity, acting as if its success depends entirely on me,” says Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort of Joy. “But once I’ve done my best, I try to let go as much as possible and have no expectations about how my work will be received by the world.”

Letting go of your expectations of how the world – editors, publishers, readers, family, friends – will view your writing is crucial. Successful writers must develop the skin of a rhino (or at least pretend they aren’t slayed by what readers think of their writing).

Perhaps even more important for authors is knowing what rights to offer an editor or agent. Freelance writers need to be familiar with the different types of magazine, article, and online content rights. Here are definitions of first serial rights, reprint rights, one time rights, all rights, electronic rights, subsidiary rights, and dramatic, TV, and motion picture rights.

  1. First serial rights allow a magazine or newspaper to publish your article for the first time. If it’s limited by geography, it’s called “North American rights” or “North American first serial rights.” Some publications specify a date range for first serial rights – for instance, the contract a major health magazine mailed to me last week specified that they have the right to use the work from the publication date and “exclusive to us for 90 days after the off-sale date of the magazine.”
  2. Second serial rights or reprint rights allow a magazine, newspaper, or book to publish an article after it’s already appeared in a different magazine, newspaper, or book. You can offer reprint rights to other publications – unless you’ve sold all rights to the article.
  3. One time rights or simultaneous rights are nonexclusive rights. This type of copyright for freelance writers means that the magazine, newspaper or other publication can publish the work once. As the book author, you can sell your article, book, or poem to other publications at the same time – but it’s good business etiquette to tell them that you’ve sold one time rights elsewhere.
  4. All rights means that you can never use the article, book, poem, screenplay, etc again. This type of copyright for freelance writers and book authors is probably best avoided.
  5. Electronic rights cover online magazines, websites, databases, CD-ROM magazine anthologies, interactive games – anything electronic or internet-based. If you only sell electronic rights, then you’re free to sell your writing to print markets (Suite101 offers this type of copyright to its freelance writers).
  6. Subsidiary rights are found in book contracts. “This type of copyright may include various serial rights; movie, TV, audiotape, and other electronic rights; translation rights, etc,” write the editors in the 2009 Writer’s Market. “The book contract should specify who controls the rights (author or publisher) and what percentage of sales from the licensing of these rights goes to the author.”
  7. Dramatic, TV, and motion picture rights covers the stage, TV, or movie rights. A writer can sell options to these rights to another party (an agent, perhaps), who then tries to sell the idea to actors, directors, studios, or TV networks. “Some properties are optioned numerous times, but most fail to become full productions,” write the editors in Writer’s Market. “In those cases, the writer can sell the rights again and again.”

Before you can even think about the different types of copyright, you have to pitch that article or write your book. This means sticking to your daily writing habit. “What I did have, which others perhaps didn’t, was a capacity for sticking at it, which really is the point, not the talent at all,” said Doris Lessing.“You have to stick at it.

If you’re a writer who doesn’t pay much attention to copyright, read What Do You Do When the Publisher Cancels Your Contract?

Do you have experience or current information about electronic or online content copyrights for writers and bloggers? Please share below; I’d love to know what’s happening outside of my Writing Blossoms blog bubble 🙂


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3 thoughts on “7 Types of Copyright for Freelance Writers and Book Authors”

  1. Thank you, this was very helpful. I’m an aspiring writer trying to get myself published. I’ve bookmarked this page in order to quick-reference it for later.

  2. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Hi T.R.,

    I think most newspapers and magazines have a published copyright notice, stating that all letters to the editor become “property” of the newspaper once submitted.

    So, I don’t think authors of letters to the editor have any rights at all, after the letter has been voluntarily submitted.

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