What are Rights?
Copyright is an automatic right generated by the development of an original work. Sometimes you see it written as ©
In New Zealand, copyright lasts for fifty years after an author’s death. In the United States, it’s SEVENTY years.
The copyright is owned by the creator, but he or she may allow another person to use their work. While the copyright remains in place, someone has to have permission to use it. In the publishing industry, permission is often called ‘licensing’, and permission is usually granted through a formal contract.
You may need to prove that you are the copyright holder. General practice among authors is to register their titles with the US Copyright Office. This is not essential, because copyright is automatic. But if you have a problem with your titles being pirated, this may help.
Copyright is a property right. You can’t hold an idea, like you can hold, for example, a house. Copyright is Intellectual Property; an intangible but valuable product. Sometimes “intellectual property” is shortened to simply “IP”.
There are other forms of intellectual property, like designs, patents and trademarks. This means if you’re writing a book, the front cover and the layout of the words (typesetting or formatting), which are design work, may belong to the publisher or cover designer. It also means you should check the licensing of any art you use in your cover. Don’t forget poetry or songs are also original work. So before using someone else’s ideas, make sure you have permission to do this.
You can find out more information at the NZ Intellectual Property Office (this is a really user-friendly site, and is worth a look even if you’re not based in New Zealand.)
If you want more information on rights, check out Joanna Penn’s podcast here.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and this does not constitute legal advice. For legal advice, see a legal professional!
How are Rights Used?
Rights can be sliced and diced in many different ways. Here are some examples:
- By format: digital, audio, print, radio, screenplay, braille.
- By location: World, Asia, Europe, Australia. There is a new rights location, called simply Space! This may sound crazy. But remember: if your rights last for at least 50 years after your death, it’s very possible that people will be in space before your rights expire. I love the thought of astronauts listening to my books on audio!
What Does This Mean For Me?
You should think of your rights as assets. When you write a book, you are in effect creating something that could generate income not just for you, but for your children and your grandchildren.
You need to consider this, when you consider a contract from a publisher. You should ask yourself: Is the amount a publisher offers me more than the amount I may make from this book?
And you should also think: can I exploit these rights myself?
For me, I’m not so worried about having worldwide rights for A Necklace of Souls in say, Chinese. So if someone was to send me an interesting rights offer for Chinese worldwide rights, I could be interested.
However, if translation services go the way that is widely expected, it’s possible I might be better off holding onto translation rights and waiting for a few years.
Take The Long View
The value of your rights may increase as you produce more books. So don’t get discouraged early on. (This is something I am constantly telling myself!) Remember, too, that technology and platforms are constantly evolving, and that something you never dreamed of having a commercial value (like Space) may one day be a real possibility.
I guess at the end of the day it always takes time to create something of value — whether its a book or a house. But an asset is generally worth having!