Copyright, Rights and Permissions

Copyright is complex. When a publisher ‘buys your work,’ you don’t really sell it. They pay for the rights to publish your words in certain ways in certain places. This short guide serves as a basic introduction to copyright, rights and permissions.

It’s worth understanding the basics, above everything else, it may influence your decision to self-publish. This is because most publishers are looking to buy the ‘first rights’ to the words they print – they want to be the first to offer something for sale. If you self-publish through Lulu, Kindle, Smashwords or by any other means, your valuable collection of words is considered ‘published’.

First Rights have been granted. You’re no longer able to offer them to an interested publisher without making substantial changes to your work. Of course you are able to offer other rights, but traditionally these pay less. That said, the publishing world is changing and what holds true today, may change tomorrow.


Next up, copyright. Many authors assume that self publishing is a great way to safeguard their work.

“Copyright” only protects the WORDS inside the book from being plagiarized. It has nothing to do with the “First Rights to Publish.”

Default rights

In the absence of a contract or any stated rights, it’s usually understood that you are selling “first” rights, but it never hurts to make sure.

First Rights

Most publishers are looking to buy first rights to your work. They want to be the first to put your work up for sale. You might see this referred to as First North American Serial Rights (FNASR), First British Rights, First European Rights, First Australian Rights etc. First World English Rights mean being the first in the entire English-speaking world to publish the piece. You won’t be able to sell individual territory rights if you go for this.

The principle is always the same, the publisher buys the rights to publish the work once in the specified country in the specified format. After this, the copyright returns to you. You are able to then sell reprints, anthology rights etc.

Check any publish on demand contract carefully and find out when the rights revert to you. If you sign with another publisher, they’ll want you to end any earlier agreements. Avoid expensive legal wrangles and make sure your contract specifies an end date (or reversion of rights) for when the rights revert back to the author.

Avoid any contract that says they revert when the book goes out of print – print on demand is never out of print, so you could be signing your work over forever.

First Electronic Rights or First World Electronic Rights

This covers publication online and through digital means. We always advise authors to take care when signing over First Electronic Rights. Once your work has been published online, that’s it. No matter how tiny the readership. Other sites or publications might then not feel your work is worth buying.

First Electronic Rights must be negotiated separately from First Rights.

Archival Rights

This is one to watch, take care if a publisher asks for “the right to archive” or “the right to make [works] available” on the Web. This means that your work stays accessible by visitors to a website, long after its first appearance. As long as your piece is archived or being made available, it’s considered “in print.”

If a website wants the right to archive your piece, make sure it’s only for a limited length of time.

One-time Rights

This is usually seen for anthologies or competitions. You are selling the rights for one use only. It isn’t the same as first rights. One-time rights means that someone has the right to publish the work, the piece may have already appeared elsewhere.

Anthology Rights

In a similar vein, this gives the publisher of an anthology the right to publish your piece. Anthologies often purchase reprint material. Many magazines that put out annual “Best of” collections negotiate anthology rights with authors whose work has appeared in their magazines.

Reprint Rights, or Second Serial Rights

When you offer these rights, you have informed the publication that first rights for the piece have been sold, but that the publication can purchase the right from you to print the piece again, as a reprint.

If you sell Nonexclusive Reprint Rights, you retain the right to sell reprint rights to the same piece to more than one publication, even at the same time. (See “Exclusive vs. Nonexclusive,” below.)

Translation Rights

A publisher or publication may purchase the right to print your story or article in a different language. These are often called Translation Rights: Spanish Language Translation Rights, and so on.

Excerpt Rights

This means that the purchaser can use excerpts from your piece in other instances. One example of this is the use of an excerpt in an educational environment. An author sold “ten-year nonexclusive excerpt rights” to his story so that portions could be used in a standardized test program.

It may be worth mentioning here that small portions of a work can usually be quoted — with proper attribution — in an article or essay by another author. This is termed “fair use.” There are legal guidelines pertaining to what is regarded as “fair use,” however, and these guidelines vary from country to country. If you intend to quote extensively, or would like to quote material whose use may be denied to outside parties, you should always ask permission from the original copyright owner.

Never be tempted to sell all rights to your story. Once you’ve done that, it’s no longer yours. You can’t even quote from it on your own website or use it in an anthology.

Similarly, when you sell all rights to your work, you can never use that article or story again, in its current form. While you are still nominally the copyright holder,. To resell that material, you would have to create a substantially different version.

Exclusive vs. Nonexclusive

When you sell exclusive rights, you are agreeing that your work won’t appear elsewhere during the period stated. You’ll usually need to agree a time limit for this, particularly with a short story. You might want to allow exclusive rights for a while then use it later on your own website or in an anthology. Nonexclusive is the opposite. It can appear in two places at once.

Beware of the phrase “nonexclusive right to display, copy, publish, distribute, transmit and sell digital reproductions’. This means your material may be sold elsewhere, by someone else without their being obliged to share their profits with you. Of course, you can do the same thing, but they’ll probably be better at this than you.

This guide is meant to give you an overview of the world of rights and permissions. It’s a complex field and you need to seek qualified advice before entering into any agreement.