Know Your Rights Before Youíre Left Out!


When publishing was only a matter of paper and ink, and reading material was produced by hand, authorís "rights" were pretty simple. There were none. Whatever the author wrote, the author sold and the author kept the money. With the invention of the printing press, came a new industry, Publishing. The good news for authors was that their works could be reproduced in large quantities. The bad news was that authors and writers now needed protection from these same publishers in order to receive fair compensation for each reproduction of their work sold. In order to insure the author would receive this compensation, more than a handshake was needed. Thus began the first written agreement between the publisher and the author; the contract, and a new terminology was created around the phrase authorís "rights".

The first contracts were a simple agreement between the publisher and author. Publisher agrees to pay author a percentage of each book sold. For awhile things were going along quite well and everybody was happy. Then, one day, the owner of a local theater read a novel and decided it would make an interesting play. A new contract had to be drawn up between the author of the original work, the publisher of that work and the theater owner (renamed "Producer") who wanted to use the work of the talented author for their own profit, Thus the term "Dramatic" rights was added to the vocabulary and things started to get a little complicated. Authors and writers needed help in the ever growing "rights" industry and a new profession was born: the Literary Agent. (Not to be, but often is, confused with another profession held in equally high esteem, the Lawyer.)

In the early days of horse and buggy when books were delivered only to a small area, local rights were all one needed. But with the onset of trains, planes and automobiles, "international"rights became part of the contracts. Along with the birth of the motion picture industry, came the added line "film rights" which begat television rights, which begat video tape and audio books rights as well.

The relationship between all parties was going along quite well for most of the 20th century. Authors were writing, agents were rejecting authorís writing, authorís kept writing, agents sent manuscripts to publishers, publishers rejected manuscripts, agents got lucky, agents got 10%, publishers got rich, agents got richer, authors got burned out. Then, during the latter part of the 1990's, the entire industry took a dramatic turn with the creation of a brand new publishing medium: The INTERNET, and it begat a brand new term never before heard of in the history of the published world: "Electronic" rights.

As recently as 1995, the Writers Market didnít even show a listing for ebook rights. For the writing novice, all they listed was the usual explanation of First Serial Rights - or North American Rights, Second serial (reprint) Rights, Subsidiary Rights, and Dramatic, Television, and Motion Picture Rights, which are usually purchased on a one-year option, generally for 10% of the total price by an interested party, usually a producer, who then tries to sell the idea to other people. (Remember our friendly little "theater owner"?)

Electronic rights can cover a lot of territory. Take this article for example. Itís being read on your computer screen, but you can also download it to your hard drive, make a print copy, or several print copies, and send it out across the world in an instant. And the author, me, wouldnít receive one dime for any of it. However, before you hit that button, check the top of this page, and youíll see a little © symbol. Hey, itís "copyrighted"! Which means if I catch you making money off my work, Iíll see you in court. It also means that anything I write cannot be reproduced in any form without my express, written permission. (So, just go ahead and ask first!) But the ebook rights go much further than simply the reproduction of articles. It includes full length books, and is now a very important part of any legitimate book contract. Itís also something that every author and writer should be totally knowledgeable about before signing any contract. If you have an agent, there is a good possibility they arenít up on all the legalities of this new industry. But, Iím assuming that since youíre reading this on an electronic device, most of you are more knowledgeable than most on the wonders of ebook and epublishing.

The best website for detailed information about this subject can be found at As I donít wish to violate anyoneís copyright, Iíll simply suggest you check out that page and read the articles that other people have written regarding the many different rights that now exist. You can also find valuable information from the National Writers Union web site at, which includes the copyright case won by the Union President John Tasini against the New York Times. (See Tasini v NYT)

The writing and publishing profession is changing almost daily. Print-On-Demand companies such as, Xlibris and 1st Books are going to give the traditional publishing houses a run for their money. Ebook publishers, such as and several others are making huge strides in the electronic market which is growing at a furious pace. Literary agents and traditional publishers who arenít totally aware of this new industry or think that this is only a "temporary phase" are going to find themselves looking for a new job before this decade is out. And authors and writers who are not fully knowledgeable of their rights in this new electronic age, are going to find themselves losing vast sums of money to them that do. The bottom line is, KNOW YOUR RIGHTS before you sign on that same bottom line. Your reputation as well as your bank account demand no less.


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