Understanding the value of copyright

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This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world for material to help other writers. Today I discuss a blog post about the value of copyright…

When I started my online business some 25 years ago, I wrote an article for a trade magazine.

It was a fair bit of work, but I did it for free in the hope it would drive readers to my new website. Two days before the article was due to go to press, the magazine asked me to sign a contract giving them copyright to my piece of writing. Their request incensed me.

I’d written the piece for free, and now they were demanding copyright as well? I knew their request was unreasonable, but just to be sure, I checked with a lawyer friend who told me I was right.

I thought strategically for a couple of minutes and decided that if their print publication was due at the printers in two days, they wouldn’t have time to find another piece. So, I refused to sign the contract.

They folded. They issued me a revised contract right away and everything went well after that.

Publishers, magazines and other companies sometimes like to prey upon authors. If you’re a writer, it’s important to understand the value of copyright — and the difference between copyright and other rights. A recent post on the excellent Writer Beware website will be helpful to you.

In speaking about the value of copyright, writer Victoria Strauss gives much useful information, including this:

“In countries that are signatory to the Berne Convention,, the international source for copyright law (including the USA, Canada, the UK, Europe, and  many other countries), you own copyright, automatically, as soon your work is fixed in tangible form–i.e., the minute you write the words. Your ownership extends beyond your death–between 50 and 70 years, depending on which country you’re in.”

Many writers are unaware that the value of copyright doesn’t expire with an author’s death — it continues for many decades more. And it’s also worth underlining that laws are slightly different in every country, so you need to be mindful of which country you’re operating in.

I also liked the way Strauss described the difference between copyright and rights:

“Eventually, once the contract term expires, or the publisher decides the book is no longer profitable, the publisher will cease publication and terminate its claim on your rights. This is known as rights reversion. Sometimes reversion is automatic (as in a contract that extends for a set period of years). Sometimes you can request reversion after certain conditions have been met (as in a life-of-copyright contract). Once your rights have reverted, you are free to re-sell them or to use them yourself, as you choose.”

Understanding the legalities of the publishing world is an important part of being a writer.

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