Publishing Contracts: Copyright Assignment vs Copyright License

The best analogy for copyright is a jar of markers where each marker represents one of your rights - 10 things: Sharpies by Crystl from Flickr

The best analogy for copyright is a jar of markers where each marker represents one of your rights – 10 things: Sharpies by Crystl from Flickr

I had the pleasure of speaking about the legalities of publishing at Changing Hands Indie Author Conference on February 9, 2013. My session covered the basics of copyright, the importance of registering your copyrights and publishing contracts. I wanted to do a recap of the two types of publishing contracts from a copyright perspective: copyright assignments and copyright licenses.

A copyright is the rights you get in your work. Your rights are created the instant you have an original work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium. As the copyright holder, you have the exclusive right to copy, distribute, display, perform, and make derivative works based on your original work. If you want to let someone publish your work, you need a copyright assignment or a copyright license. This should be a signed contract between the parties and it should be explicit about the rights you’re giving up (if any) and what you will get in return.

Copyright Assignment
When you give someone a copyright assignment, you give them your copyright. When you have a copyright assignment, you do not own your copyright anymore; the other party does. If you publish your work after you assign it to someone, you will be committing copyright infringement, even though you were the original author of the work. Some publishers require you to assign your copyright to them or else they won’t publish your work.

If you give someone a copyright assignment and you later regret the decision, you have to buy your copyright back from them. I know at least one artist who sold the copyright in his work and later purchased it back because it was more lucrative for him to control it.

Copyright License
If you grant someone a copyright license, you retain ownership of your copyright and you give the other party permission to use some or all of your copyright rights. You may grant a publisher the rights to publish your work in print and/or as an ebook but retain the right to create an audio version of your work. J.K. Rowling retained her internet rights to the Harry Potter series when she negotiated her contract with her publishers, which is why she could create Pottermore.

If you license your work, the license should explicit state whether the license is exclusive or non-exclusive, time-limited or perpetual, and clearly state how you will be compensated for granting the other party the license.

Publishing contracts are complicated and it’s best to have a lawyer review the contract before you sign it to ensure you understand what rights you’re giving up and what rights you get to keep. As always, if there’s a portion of a contract that you don’t understand, don’t sign it.

I also created a video this week about the difference between copyright assignments and copyright licenses here.


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