Should you ever assign copyright?

I’m often asked this question. Is it ever OK to relinquish your grip on all-important copyright in your work?

The ever-brilliant writing advisor Simon Whaley recently addressed this in a post, called The 0.01% Copyright Conundrum. In summary, Simon assigned copyright to some of his early non-fiction books, deciding to do so after going through the emotional wringer, but — years on — it turns out to have been not such a bad decision at all, as he was paid well to start with, paid for subsequent work and updates, and indeed for another book, as the books moved from publisher to publisher.

As regular readers will know, I’m usually firmly against copyright assignment — although every case should be judged on its own merits (or otherwise). I have turned down a lot of work for magazines which stipulated copyright assignment in their contracts. More often than not, I’ve just avoided pitching to known copyright-grabbers. I’d rather self-publish or work for lower payers.

The issue regularly crops up in writing circles. The NUJ regularly campaign against ‘all rights’ grabs, and the subject is often being debated on social media. Including today. Uproar has justifiably broken out among womag (woman’s magazine) fiction writers because Woman’s Weekly has both reduced rates and is asking its writers to relinquish copyright in their short stories. Click here to read more from Patsy Collins’ Womagwriter’s Blog.

A little confession …
Back in my early days, I was asked to write a book, and terms included ‘all rights’.

The book was not my idea, so I didn’t feel I had ‘ownership’ of it, nor any right to take it to another publisher. I didn’t particularly want to write it, and wasn’t interested in the subject, but what I was was keen to get a book under my belt, in order to move my career forward. I thought other publishers would look upon me more favourably as a published author.

And so I signed the contract. I was to be paid in three modest four-figure instalments — a third on signing contract, a third on delivery of the manuscript, and a third on publication. I wrote the book and delivered it. Soon after, the publisher went under. Some books were sold to another publisher. Mine was not. I’d been paid 2/3rds of the flat fee, but missed out on the last tranche.

Over a decade on, the book has never seen the light of day. But I did receive over £2,000 for the work, which I would never have seen had I agreed a royalty contract. Bizarrely, it’s still my most profitable book, as not one of my many other published books — all royalty basis, all my copyright — has yet earned that figure.

So I can see where Simon is coming from, as I have experienced something similar, and I can’t disagree with him. Sometimes, copyright assigning is, sadly, going to be inevitable — including, as he says, when a book will consist of the writing of many contributors.

There have been a few exceptional circumstances elsewhere in my career, where I assigned copyright. Once I called Reader’s Digest to discuss a copyright-grabbing writing competition of theirs …. and after grilling the editor about it I ended up with a commission about an entirely different subject. I will never forget her charm in winning me over, and it remains without a doubt the oddest route I’ve ever taken to landing work in my life. I’m afraid the prospect of having an RD clipping in my portfolio was simply too appealing, and I could not bring myself to say no. I do feel a little guilty. I hope this isn’t hypocrisy, but I fear it may be …

On the subject of writing competitions, that’s where I would apply a ‘without exception’ rule. I have written several times about writing competitions whose T&Cs require copyright on all entries (never mind winning ones, losing ones too). They are unacceptable. To see previous posts on this, start here with posts tagged Competitions.

In summary …
I would always urge all writers to defend copyright as much as they can. Sometimes the cherry may be too juicy to resist, but more often than not (far more often than not) we need to defend our rights to retain ownership in our work as much as we conceivably can.

Postscript June 30th: Simon Whaley has since posted again on the issue. See Not All Right(s) in Womagland

Comments 8

  • Yes, ironically, with the exception of my bestselling books (the first two), the books I’ve sold copyright in have earned me more money than my others. And, of course, you don’t have to own the copyright to be entitled to PLR, you can ‘just’ be the named author inside the book, so they’ve generated a useful ongoing income stream for me too.

    I think it’s also worth remembering, in light of the latest developments at Woman’s Weekly, that these sorts of business decisions, where a publication changes its policy, are rarely those of the editor, but instead taken at a far senior level. It’s the editor at the coalface who is left having to deal with the consequences.

    • The PLR point is a very good one.

      And quite agree re: the editor. I would like to see some editors take a stand on this, though. Or perhaps some have, in the past, and we’ve never heard about it? I think I would struggle to continue in my position as an editor if I was told I had to commission writers on all rights bases. But when there’s a livelihood at stake … and in this climate … So difficult isn’t it.

  • A difficult decision? Maybe for some it is. I’ll lose a lot (for me) of money by refusing to sign, but I’ll retain my self respect and that’s of value to me.

    What Woman’s Weekly are doing is wrong. There’s no need for them to take all rights from us, as they can already re-use our stories. If I agree to this change I’m not only cheating myself, but helping the same thing happen to other writers and encouraging the other magazines to adopt the same policy. I won’t do that.

    • Good for you. They want it, I presume, in order to make money – they have the secondary rights, they have overseas rights, they have the translation rights – and I’m of the view, as I’m sure you are, that those extra ‘royalties’ should be shared with the author, not pocketed by the publisher and its shareholders.

  • Question – if you have given away copyright to a major magazine for example like I did when I was young and inexperienced with little knowledge about copyright consequences, is there ever a way to revoke your signed permission? I’m guessing no….

    • Hi Lissa. You can’t revoke it, but you can certainly make an enquiry about it. I doubt the magazine will reassign copyright back to you, but you never know — they may take kindly to your request. More likely though is that they’ll let you use it for a specific purpose which you should provide — for example, they may allow you to use the article on your website or in a self-published collection of your journalism (just to make up some possibilities). If you want to potentially exploit a right which has not yet been exploited (for instance, I don’t know, Australian rights), you could perhaps offer to share 50:50 the spoils of that with the publisher in a syndication agreement. Remember you can rewrite the content, update it, add new content etc and you’ll effectively create a new piece of work which is fresh. The subject and facts aren’t subject to copyright, just the arrangement of words. I would open a dialogue and see where it gets you. If it’s a large publisher, they’ll probably have a dedicated person as the Rights Manager. I’ll share this on Twitter and see whether anyone has other suggestions. Will post again if they do. Alex.

  • I agree, Alex – it might be worth asking if you’d like to use the story for something specific and they may give permission.

    I don’t see how someone can revoke copyright they don’t hold. Once you’ve given up copyright on a piece of work it’s no more yours than something written by any other author.

    • Thanks Patsy. That really is the harsh truth of copyright assignment, isn’t it. Really needs to be made more clear to younger and newer writers, somehow.

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