This is a long post. I do apologise, but even when summarised, book rights are a complex topic. I have simplified as far as possible. 

What are intellectual property rights?

When you write something, anything, as long as it’s original, you automatically own the copyright. It belongs to you. You don’t need to fill in any forms or register anything. The simple act of creation makes you the owner. You can use it, re-use it or change it however you please.

So what happens when you sell a story?

A story is not a product, like a loaf of bread. When you sell it, you do not pass over the physical item so the buyer now has it instead of the seller.When it comes to intellectual property, you don’t actually own the hard copy story or the storage media on which the digital files are kept (well, you might, but that’s ownership of the paper or electronic media, not the story).

What you own when you own a story is the intellectual property in the story. It’s an idea. We lawyers like to call it intangible property – that is, you can’t pick it up or touch it. What you actually own has no physical existence of its own. 

So when you sell a story, what you’re really doing is ‘licensing’ (or allowing) someone else to use your story. You can put limitations on how they can use it and for what purpose. ‘Ownership’ of the story still resides with you and you can continue to use it, subject to the rights you have sold. 

For those of you who know anything about property, it’s analogous to an easement – if you own a piece of land, it’s yours to do with as you please. If there is an easement over that property, you can still use the property – subject to the rights of the easement that belong to someone else, such as a right to cross your land. In this case you can do anything you like with your land, except block that right of access. 

You can do anything you like with your story, as long as you don’t infringe the rights you have granted to someone else. So what rights might you grant to someone else?

FNASR – First North American Serial Rights

When you sell FNASR you are licensing the right to be the first to publish the material in North America, but only once. If this is the only licence you’ve granted, all other rights remain with you. You can, obviously, only sell FNASR once, but you can also sell Reprint Rights, Anthology Rights, First British Rights, First European Rights and First Australian Rights. If the publication that bought FNASR is print only, you can also sell First Electronic Rights. However, I suggest you might want to consider keeping this for last as, once published electronically, it may discourage potential purchasers of other rights.  

First Rights

The right to be the first to publish a piece. It can be limited geographically or by medium. You can sell many first rights as long as they don’t overlap.

First World English

The right to be first to publish the work in the entire English speaking world. These rights encompass FNASR, First British, First Canadian, First Australian and any other English speaking country, so if you sell First World English you can’t sell these rights separately.

You can also sell first rights in other languages (sometimes called Translation Rights).

First Electronic Rights or First World Electronic Rights

The right to be the first to publish on the internet, by email, downloadable file (e-book) or programme, on CD etc. A variation is Electronic Publishing Rights in the English Language, which is the same as First World English but limited to electronic media. When you sell FNASR it does not automatically include First Electronic Rights. This must be separately and explicitly negotiated.

Sometimes a distinction is made between publishing on the internet and via other electronic media, but this is not always the case.

If you publish something on your blog, you generally can’t sell First Electronic Rights.

One-time Rights

A right to publish your work once and once only, but not necessarily first. Someone else may have already published the piece.

Reprint Rights, or Second Serial Rights

Offered when the work has already been printed once, it gives a publication the right to reprint the piece. Note that self-published material or work posted to a blog or website is considered published, so you can’t sell First Rights for such work. You can sell Reprint Rights, but usually the payment is lower.
Nonexclusive Reprint Rights gives you the ability to sell Reprint Rights to more than one publication (including simultaneously).

Anthology Rights

The right to publish the work in a collection. This is often a subcategory of reprint rights as anthologies frequently buy reprint material. It’s not always a reprint right, although generally there are more lucrative markets for first rights. Of course, there is an exception to every rule. Terry Goodkind’s Debt of Bones first appeared in an anthology and was subsequently reprinted as a stand alone novella. 

Excerpt Rights

The right to use excerpts of your work e.g. to be used in a standard testing programme.

Small portions of a work can usually be quoted under the ‘fair use’ policy, which allows someone to quote a work as long as they use proper attribution (i.e. attribute the work to its author). The rules of fair use vary from country to country though, so excerpt rights may be desirable when someone wants to quote significant portions of a text.

Archival Rights

The right to archive or make works available on the internet. In short, it means the piece will be kept on file and accessible long after its publication – like an archived blog post. Beware a contract that requires you to sell archival rights! An archived piece is considered to still be ‘in print. This makes it difficult to sell other rights for an archived piece. You should try to limit any archival rights you sell to a limited time, otherwise the piece will never be ‘out of print’, severely limiting your ability to sell it again.  

All Rights

If you sell all the rights in your work, you can never again use the work in its current form. To resell the material, you would need to create a substantially different version. You can still take the characters and reuse them in another story, because the all rights holder does not own the characters, just the story in which they appeared.

You should also be aware that the all rights holder can also license your work to third parties. You have essentially made the all rights holder the ‘owner’ of the work in the absolute sense in which you were the owner prior to transferring all your rights. Anything you could have done, prior to selling all rights, the all rights holder can do, include selling all the above listed types of rights.

You do retain a nominal (or moral) right to have the work attributed to you. So the all rights holder can legally do what they like with the work, but they cannot claim credit for authoring the work.

Moral Rights or Work for Hire

Like all rights, except you do not even retain nominal rights. This means even a substantial revision of the work could be a no-no and you can’t use the characters elsewhere. In many jurisdictions, the author of a work has ‘moral rights’, but under work-for-hire agreements you will be required to sign a moral rights release. From a practical perspective, essentially you never really owned the copyright. Copyright instead vests in your employer or the person hiring you. This is common scenario for professional services firms e.g. employed architects creating intellectual property which vests in the architectural firm rather than the individual architect.  

Exclusive vs. Nonexclusive Rights

Exclusive rights means the piece must not appear elsewhere while they hold rights to the piece. Exclusive rights usually have a time limit such as one year. It would be very unwise to sell unlimited exclusive rights, as it would prevent you from selling other rights! After the expiration of the exclusivity period, the piece may be printed elsewhere.

Nonexclusive means the piece can be printed in two places at once, as long as both publications only hold nonexclusive rights. You can see if your piece is published on your website, or you have granted archival rights to someone, you may not be able to grant exclusive rights so long as the piece remains published in those formats.

The “nonexclusive right to display, copy, publish, distribute, transmit and sell digital reproductions” means you are allowing your material to be sold elsewhere, by someone else. You may not be paid for any of these, depending on the nature of your agreement e.g., a nonexclusive, royalty-free right has no payment attached. 

You can continue to sell other rights to your own work, but be aware the original purchaser may also licence your piece to fee-based databases or other content sources without ever reimbursing you. 

Fanfiction – Case Study

Suppose you write a story using characters from your favourite role-playing game, book or movie. 

Obviously this isn’t desirable, but many of us do this in our early days when we are still starting out writing. Later we may decide some of that material is salvageable and want to reuse it. So who owns what intellectual property? Here are a few variations:
  • Original storyline using characters from a book or game – you own the plotline, but you don’t own the characters. To sell this, you would need to change the characters;
  • Storyline derived from the game using characters from the book or game – bad idea. Go write something of your own!
  • Storyline derived from the book or game using original characters – you won’t be able to sell that story without infringing the book or game owner’s intellectual property, but you can take the characters and re-use them in an original plotline. Note that if you use the names of characters from that other work, but your characters are not actually true to the characters in that other work, the character is yours but the name is not. You could change the names and re-use the characters. However, if the character is properly the property of the owner of the other work, merely changing the names won’t save you;
  • Original plotline using original characters – the only way this would be tied to the book or game would be if you had used names from the book or game, either characters or places. If we assume you have used those names, but the characters are not true to the descriptions in the game, you can change the name and away you go.
Essentially, you can use the parts that belong to you. You can reuse them or modify them at will without infringing any intellectual property rights, because you hold those rights, and therefore you can decide what to do with it. You can’t use or borrow any intellectual property belonging to someone else without a licence to do so. 
This is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge Series. If you missed the previous posts, you can find them here – A, B, C, D, E, F, G and H.

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Author’s Note: This post is designed to provide a factual summary of the different types of intellectual property rights relating to books, but does not purport to be an exhaustive list, nor is it a substitute for legal advice. If in doubt about the rights you are signing away in a contract, always seek the advice of a qualified lawyer.