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What Could Surrendering Your Copyright Potentially Cost You?

Kim Staflund: founder and publisher at Polished Publishing Group (PPG) and author of the PPG Publisher’s Blog

Kim Staflund: founder and publisher at Polished Publishing Group (PPG) and author of the PPG Publisher’s Blog

The CEO Magazine recently published a piece I wrote for their 8020 Blog titled Your Book is an Asset … if You Own the Copyright, and it generated many comments from both authors and publishers alike … some more passionate than others. The consensus was that it was too simplified, as though a more complicated explanation of copyright is somehow more acceptable to the masses. I disagree, hence this additional blog post on the topic.

Here is my personal belief: when people are unable to explain their topic matter to others in layman’s terms with ease, then they are either hiding something or they don’t fully understand it themselves. This is why I’m cautious when it comes to publishing contracts that are filled with complicated legalese. It is also why I challenge those who try to defend such contracts by saying, “It’s not that simple. There are different types of licenses. There are several factors to consider. Authors may be relinquishing some of their control, but not necessarily their copyright; or, if they are giving up their copyright, it may be only temporarily, not permanently.” And on and on.

Semantics. Legalese is confusing by design. I could utilize immoderately byzantine phraseology and labyrinthine reasoning with the best of them if I chose to, but that rather defeats the purpose of communication, don’t you think? 

I’d rather be clear and helpful. So, let’s keep it simple. Because, at the end of the day, it’s unnecessary to complicate this.

COPYRIGHT SIMPLIFIED (UNDERSTANDING PUBLISHING CONTRACTS)

  cop·y·right
/ˈkäpēˌrīt/

  noun
noun: copyright; plural noun: copyrights
1. the exclusive legal right, given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film,   or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same.
“he issued a writ for breach of copyright”
* a particular literary, artistic, or musical work that is covered by copyright.

  adjective
adjective: copyright
1. protected by copyright.
“permission to reproduce photographs and other copyright material”

  verb
verb: copyright; 3rd person present: copyrights; past tense: copyrighted; past participle:
copyrighted; gerund or present participle: copyrighting
1. secure copyright for (material).

As the original creator of your manuscript, you own 100 percent of all of the rights to reproduce, publish, sell, and distribute your words in whatever manner you see fit. Your manuscript belongs to you and you alone—from the moment you write it. It is only when you decide that you want to publish your manuscript into book format with the hopes that you’ll earn some money (or educate people, or entertain people, or whatever your personal reasoning is for publishing it) that some or all of the copyright ownership of that work might shift to someone else, depending on which publication method you choose. In other words, you might take a few different routes toward having your book published, and each of these book publishing methods affects your copyright ownership a little differently.

It is vitally important that you review a publishing contract in full before you ever sign it; and, if the contract before you is filled with a bunch of hard-to-understand language, then ask the questions you need to ask to ensure that you fully understand the agreement you’re about to enter into. Hold the company accountable for explaining it to you and putting you at ease. You have that right as one of their clients.

TRADITIONAL (TRADE) PUBLISHERS

Some authors will submit their manuscripts to a traditional (trade) publisher for consideration in the hopes that it will be published free of charge to them. What they might not realize is that whoever is paying for the publication of a book is the one who ends up with primary control over that book. Trade publishers don’t pick up the bill simply out of the kindness of their hearts. They are business people who are buying a product to try to turn a profit for themselves, and that “product” is the copyright ownership of your manuscript (whether permanent or temporary, whether full or partial—it varies with each contract and each publisher).

And fair enough! If I was paying for the whole thing, assuming all financial risk and responsibility for the project myself, then I would want majority control and ownership, too. That’s the only way I would be able to earn a decent return on my investment. So, this isn’t a criticism of the publishing model itself. It’s simply intended to educate authors about the true implication of publishing through this type of publisher. If someone else is paying for it, they own it. They control it. Plain and simple.

In this business model, writers usually retain only the basic publishing rights that recognize them as the author of the book and allow them to be paid a small percentage of the retail price in royalties (usually only up to 10 percent per copy sold, but it varies). The trade publisher keeps the rest of the profits because the trade publisher owns the book. Thus, as the owner of the book, that trade publisher also reserves the right to sell off additional reproductive (a.k.a. subsidiary) rights for additional profit down the road.

VANITY PUBLISHERS (UNSUPPORTED SELF-PUBLISHING FOR “INDIE” AUTHORS)

Authors who choose the vanity publishing route usually retain 100 percent ownership of their written words; however, if the vanity publisher has produced the cover artwork for them, (nine times out of ten, in my personal experience) that company usually retains the copyright of that artwork. This means that authors must always go through the vanity publisher to have their marketing materials and books printed.

A contract with a vanity publisher will usually also give that publisher non-exclusive online distribution rights throughout North America, the United Kingdom, Europe, and possibly the whole world. All this means is that the publisher reserves the right to sell and distribute copies of the book through its various channels for the duration of the contract; however, this is a non-exclusive contract; therefore, the author (and any other distributor designated by the author) is also free to sell copies of the book within those regions. If it were an exclusive contract, only the publisher would be allowed to sell the book online within those regions.

HYBRID PUBLISHERS (PROFESSIONALLY SUPPORTED SELF-PUBLISHING)

Last but not least, authors can also choose to publish through a supportive self-publishing house (a.k.a. hybrid publisher) where they will retain 100 percent copyright ownership of both their words and their artwork. Much like the contracts with vanity publishers, a contract with a supportive self-publishing house would also include non-exclusive online distribution rights worldwide for a specified term. This gives the authors much greater exposure without limiting their ability to sell wholesale author copies on their own wherever they choose to sell them.

WHAT COULD SURRENDERING YOUR COPYRIGHT POTENTIALLY COST YOU?

Eventually, once you’re selling lots of books and making a name for yourself with the general population, you’ll begin to see the true value of retaining majority (i.e., FULL!) copyright ownership—because this is when more business people will come knocking and asking to buy additional reproductive rights to your book. Maybe someone in Quebec will want to purchase the exclusive French language rights to your title so he or she can be the only one to reproduce, print, and distribute it in French to that region’s Francophone population for a profit. Maybe others will want to buy the exclusive North American film rights so that they can adapt the book for film in this region.

You can “divvy up” the rights to a book in so many different ways that it would be impossible to list them all here, but this gives you a very basic idea. It is simplified to provide an easier understanding.

What are all these rights worth? In any industry, a thing is worth what someone will pay for it. It could be worth millions to the primary owner of the book, so it’s a good idea to retain as much, if not ALL, of that ownership as you can right from the start. Then, when the movie producers and foreign publishers start calling, hire an intellectual property attorney to help you determine the best price for each sale of rights to each different buyer.

“I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU” BY DOLLY PARTON … A PRICELESS COPYRIGHT

Whether you’ve written a book, a movie script, or a song, the value of retained copyright ownership is much the same. It’s all intellectual property that can generate additional income through the sale of subsidiary rights.

Most, if not all of us are familiar with Whitney Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s song titled “I Will Always Love You.” What you may not be aware of is that, as the copyright owner of that song, Dolly gets paid each time a copy of it is made. She doesn’t have to lift a finger, and she gets paid.

Millions of copies of Whitney Houston’s cover of that song were made. And Dolly got paid on every one of them.

Retained copyright ownership of your intellectual property is potentially priceless. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

Related reading: Your Intellectual Property is Priceless! 

Related reading: Authors, Keep Your Copyrights. You Earned Them. 

Related reading: Managing Intellectual Property in the Book Publishing Industry

Related reading: Copyright Ownership: Who Owns What?

Related reading: Subsidiary Rights: Acquisition & Licensing