Get it in Writing: the Importance of Contracts


As a general rule, U.S. law requires written agreements for publishing contracts and other assignments and long-term licenses of copyright.

Two different laws require a writing:

1. The U.S. Copyright Act requires a writing for any transfer (complete or partial) of a copyright holder’s rights on an exclusive basis. 

2. The “Statute of Frauds” (a commercial statute adopted in most states) requires a writing for any contract which cannot be completely performed within a year.

Most importantly, good business sense requires a writing any time a writer grants any kind of permission for someone else to use or publish the writer’s work.

Let’s repeat that for clarity: Do not ever allow anyone to publish or use your work without a written contract.

I have only one exception to the written contract rule: guest blogs. It’s OK to blog for someone on a one-time basis (or periodically) without a contract, if you wish. This is because most bloggers don’t generate much profit from their blogs, and because you should expect to retain copyright in the work. However, make sure you know the blogger’s policy regarding copyright, and make sure it’s clear that you do retain full copyright in your work.  

We’ll take a closer look at the copyright and legal issues surrounding guest blogs next week.

Generally speaking, a contract is required any time you write as a work for hire–but insist on a contract any time someone hires you to write for pay. The terms of the contract will vary depending on what you’ve been hired to write, and we’ll look at the various types of contracts as summer goes on.


Contracts frighten many writers. We’re comfortable with the written word, but most of us don’t speak legalese. This is why it’s critical to have your contracts reviewed by a publishing lawyer–whether or not a lawyer wrote the agreement. I’ve seen many well-intentioned people sign bad contracts, and lose their rights, because of accidental omissions & misunderstandings. It’s always cheaper to pay for contract review up front than to pay the cost of litigation later.


A startling number of authors say “I didn’t demand a contract because I’m not a big name” or “I’m new.” Horsefeathers on that! All authors deserve a contract when their work is published, and all authors deserve fair terms for publication. No Exceptions.

If you are a writer, you are in the publishing business. That makes you a professional – so act like one. Note that being professional is not the same as being rude. (In fact, it’s quite the opposite.)

Sometimes, protecting your rights means being willing to walk away from a deal. That’s crushingly difficult for many authors, but it’s better than losing your rights. Copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. Don’t sign that away to anyone without proper protection. Believe that you, and your work, are worthy of respect in the business world.

Writing is a dream, and a passion, but publishing is a business. Remember that, and treat it as one.

Join me next week, when we’ll look at the legal aspects of guest blogging and how to protect your rights when you’re “away from home” on the Internet.