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.