Copyright Warnings – Hold Onto Your Rights

Today’s post takes a look at some dangerous copyright pitfalls authors need to be aware of – and avoid.

Beware Losing Your Copyrights Through a Contract.

The most dramatic copyright danger is loss of the author’s copyright through contract. No “standard” publishing contract should ever contain a grant or transfer of the copyright to the publisher. A contract which contains a transfer of copyright is essentially a “work for hire” agreement, where the writer retains no rights to the work. By contrast, a standard publishing agreement–traditional OR self-pub–is not a work for hire arrangement.

I see a surprising number of contracts in which the publisher tries to take ownership of the copyright from the author. This is far more common with small publishers and/or publishers trying to facilitate self-publishing than with larger houses.

A publisher’s contract would contain a “grant of copyright” from the publisher to the author for one of two reasons:

1. The publisher isn’t experienced enough to know that publishing contracts don’t involve a grant of copyright to the publisher.

2. The publisher is trying to take advantage of the author.

It doesn’t matter why the publishing contract contains a grant of copyright ownership to the publisher – don’t sign it.

Language To Watch For

Many authors worry that they can’t tell the difference between a “grant of copyright ownership” and standard licensing language. Let’s take a look at the “good” and “bad” contract copyright language to watch for.

Beware: Anything that uses the phrase “grant of copyright” to the publisher, whether or not it includes the word “ownership.”

Beware: Grants of rights which include more than just publishing, or which grant the publisher “all rights of every kind relating to the work.” 

Look for: Words like “license to publish, in print and ebook forms and formats.”

Many contracts contain the language “grant of license.” This is okay, as long as the grant is a license, not ownership.

One way to make sure you’re safe is to make sure the contract contains a clear statement of copyright ownership – in the author.

Look for: “Author is the sole owner and copyright holder in the Work, and retains all rights not expressly granted to Publisher in this agreement.”

A clear statement of copyright ownership makes it clear that the contract does not give the copyright to the publisher. If you’re offered a contract that doesn’t have a clear statement of your copyright ownership, ask the publisher to insert one. If the publisher refuses to include a statement of copyright ownership in the author … that’s a deal breaker. Don’t sign.

Remember: if something isn’t in the contract, it “doesn’t exist” for legal purposes. Emails, conversations, and promises don’t become part of the contract unless the language is actually included within the contract, either expressly or by clear reference. 

Protect your copyright: don’t sign a contract that gives it away. If you’re not sure, always consult a professional (an agent or attorney) BEFORE you sign.

Have you ever seen confusing language in a publishing contract? Are you vigilant in protecting your copyrights? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.