“Buys first-time rights.” This small phrase appears in the submission guidelines for most magazines, e-zines, and other print publishers. It’s not the only phrase you’ll find. There is a huge variety in the “rights” a publisher might buy. It can all be very confusing.
And before we go any further, let’s clear one thing up right now: rights are about how a publisher can use your work. It isn’t the same thing as payment or purchase. Rights are not about copyright, either. The copyright to your writing always – always – remains yours.
Here we go – a guide for every writer so that you know what rights a publication is actually requesting.
First Rights is a term that when you understand the definition, makes perfect common sense. The first time you publish your writing in any format (including blogs, e-zines, and tiny defunct journals), first rights have been used. Basically, first rights is the right to publish your writing for the first time.
This definition goes into what you can sell as an unpublished story/article/poem. And it’s causing some confusion in the publishing world. As more and more writers get their start online, writing for digital publishers or self-publishing their work to their own websites, the line between “published” and “unpublished” becomes ever more gray. Honesty being the best policy, if you have published your writing on a website and want to submit it for payment with someone else, don’t claim it as an unpublished work. Instead, note how the writing was used, whether or not it’s still viewable online, and (if possible) how many hits it actually received while online.
Whether or not you are paid when someone publishes your work for the first time, you have given them First Rights to your work. This is huge – many writers feel that first rights to their work is much more valuable than any reprint rights (as do many publishers!) so you need to really consider what your writing is worth before submitting it to non-paying or low-paying markets.
Don’t let anyone try to fool you: exclusive rights are not the same as first rights.
First rights, by definition, can be sold only one time – the first time your work is published. Exclusive rights, on the other hand, can be sold over and over.
Defining exclusive rights is pretty much this: you sell a publisher the right to print your work for a set amount of time (usually in the term of years), during which time you will not sell that work anywhere else. In other words, you’re saying “Yup – you’re the only publisher that will get a chance to legally publish my writing … for the next year.” After the amount of time set in your contract, you can resell your writing elsewhere.
Before you sign any contract with exclusive rights, be sure that you read it carefully. Double-check it against the submission guidelines. The longer the amount of time a publisher holds exclusive rights to your work, the more money you should be offered for it. Beyond your payment, the publisher is making money while you twiddle your thumbs waiting for time to expire so you can sell it again.
If you are honest and open with a publisher that buys exclusive rights from you once, and the writing sells well, they will usually offer you another contract before the first “exclusive rights” time expires.
On the other hand, if the submission guidelines and/or your contract specifically states that it is buying “non-exclusive” rights, you’re free to publish your writing elsewhere – immediately.
One-Time Rights and Perpetual Rights
One Time Rights = the right to publish your writing once (usually in a magazine, newspaper, or e-zine). Perpetual Rights = the right to publish your writing over and over, indefinitely.
There has been a lot of confusion where writing and the Internet meet over one-time and perpetual rights. Many websites that purchase work from writers claim to use “one time rights”. By definition, this would mean that the website must remove the writing from their website, archives, and any other records after a set amount of time (usually 1 week or 1 month). Most websites keep displaying a writer’s work for many months or years, eventually moving it to an archive where it can be accessed later on. When this is the case, regardless of their intentions, they are using Perpetual Rights.
If you are signing a contract for One Time Rights, make sure that there is a time-frame set out. After that time-frame, the publisher has no legal right to continue publishing your work. Otherwise, the contract needs to be redrawn for Perpetual Rights and your payment re-negotiated.
Along these lines, find out whether or not a publisher maintains an archive and if you’ll need to request removal from the archive before you attempt to publish your work elsewhere. If you will need to, note whom you need to contact and what procedure to follow.
One Time Rights can be sold repeatedly, and simultaneously. Syndicated columnists use one-time rights to sell to multiple publishers at the same time. Perpetual rights last forever, and the work you publish this way essentially becomes the legal property of the publisher you’ve sold it to.
Electronic and Print Rights
These are pretty self-explanatory, but worth mentioning. Selling electronic rights to your work allows the publisher to use it in any type of electronic format (ezines, websites, newsletters, blogs, etc.). Selling print rights indicates that the publisher will use your writing in a paper and ink publication (magazines, novels, anthologies, newspapers, etc.).
When a publisher wants to print your work in both digital and paper format, they need to purchase rights to both. By purchasing electronic rights, for example, and then forging ahead and publishing in print format without your permission the publisher is violating your contract.
First and Second Serial Rights
These rights are generally sold to a periodical (a newspaper or magazine), granting the publisher the right to your work one time. When you sell first serial rights, you are stating that the work has never been published before. Second serial rights refer to a reprint of your writing after someone else has already published it.
Like First Rights, First Serial Rights can – by definition – be sold only once. Second Serial Rights can be sold repeatedly and simultaneously.
Basically, subsidiary rights are the right to do anything at all with the writing other than publish it as a book. So, unless you sell subsidiary rights to the publisher, you still own the right to publish your work as a movie, film, videotape or audiotape, and electronic rights, translation rights, book club rights, foreign rights, etc.
Honestly, it’s much easier to let an agent negotiate these rights for you. They can negotiate separate deals for each of the potentially valuable rights and usually get you a much better deal than the publishing house will give if you sell subsidiary rights to them.