Copyright Ownership Statements in Publishing Contracts

Copyright protection is automatic and attaches to qualifying works (like novels) at the time of creation. Author can—purposefully or accidentally—transfer copyright, and the attendant sub-rights therein, by contract.

Any time a copyrightable work is published (by any method) the author should have a written contract governing the terms of the publication. (When self-publishing online, the “written contract” is generally the online terms of use.)

Every publishing contract should contain an unambiguous statement of copyright ownership, stating that the author owns the copyright. Requiring an “unambiguous copyright statement” may sound obvious, but many authors overlook this vital contract term.

The statement of copyright ownership often doesn’t appear in the “grant of rights” paragraph. It normally comes later, in a paragraph titled, “Ownership,” “Copyright Status,” or something similar.

The language to look for generally reads something like this:

“Author retains sole copyright ownership and sole ownership of all rights in and to the Work, with the limited exception of rights expressly granted to Publisher in this Agreement. This Agreement operates as a grant of copyright license, permission, and use to the maximum extent necessary or useful for Publisher to carry out and benefit from the terms of this Agreement.”

Taking a closer look, we see a few important characteristics of proper copyright ownership language:

1. Retention of Copyright Ownership. (“Author retains sole copyright ownership and sole ownership of all rights in and to the Work”) This is the critical language you have to see. It means that you, the author, retain sole ownership of both the copyright and all other rights in and to the work.

Generally speaking, publishers do not own the copyright on the works they publish. The only time a publisher should take ownership of copyright is when the work was written (under contract) as a “work for hire” – which isn’t the norm when we’re talking about short stories, novels, or novellas.

Normally, the author is licensing rights to the publisher, not selling them or giving them away outright. The contract should say this, explicitly, in terms the author understands.

2. An exception for “rights granted to the publisher.” Obviously, the rights the author grants to the publisher “belong” to the publisher for the duration of the contract. But be careful: these rights have been granted or licensed to the publisher for the contract term, not permanently transferred.

3. Retention of “all other rights” in the author – and be careful to look for lurking grants of rights. In addition to a statement that the author reserves all rights not granted to the publisher, make sure the contract grants only the rights you actually intend to license. Grants of rights may lurk in paragraphs labeled “Subsidiary Rights,” “Derivative Works,” and even “Other Terms.” Authors must read carefully and never sign anything that isn’t clear.

Incidentally: “lurking grants of rights” don’t always mean the publisher is trying to take advantage of the author. In many cases, the contract language developed over time, and is unintentionally difficult for authors to read.

If you receive a publishing contract without a clear statement that you remain the sole owner of copyright, do not sign or agree to it. Ask the publisher to revise the contract to include an unambiguous statement of copyright ownership. (The good ones will.) 

Authors must never let excitement over any publishing deal override the importance of treating the publishing contract as a business endeavor. Ultimately, you are in charge of your writing career.

Write with passion, but negotiate like a professional.

Do you feel more confident about what to look for in a copyright ownership clause? If you have questions about this or other copyright issues, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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