When an author sells or licenses a creative work for third-party publication the publishing contract specifies which rights the publisher obtains. The agreement should also state that the author retains all rights not expressly given to someone else. (That is the legal presumption that governs in most cases, but it’s too important a concept to leave out.)
Among the rights many publishers request are foreign rights, meaning the right to publish in countries other than the one where the publisher’s primary facilities are located.
“Foreign rights” can be granted en masse or subdivided into smaller chunks. A contract which specifies “world rights” grants the publisher the right (often exclusive) to publish and distribute the work in all countries throughout the world. Other common territorial provisions give the publisher “North American rights” (which means the United States, Canada, and Mexico) or “North American and European rights.”
The grant of rights should not be ambiguous or confusing. If you don’t understand exactly what your contract provides, contact your agent or a publishing attorney before you sign. Legitimate publishers often want world rights – so seeing that in your contract doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s trying to take advantage – but you should agree to contract terms only after consideration of their legal consequences.
“Foreign rights” does not mean the same thing as “foreign language rights.” The contract can – and often will – treat territorial rights separately from languages and translation. If your contract doesn’t specify, request that the publisher add a specific term designating which language rights the publisher is acquiring. Otherwise, you could find that you’ve granted more than just English language rights.
Have questions about foreign/territorial rights? Hop in to the comments and let me know!