Copyright Simplified

First and foremost, let’s recap what we discussed in an earlier blog entry titled Protecting Your Copyright by explaining exactly what copyright is. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary describes copyright as:

The exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something (as a literary, musical, or artistic work)

As the original creator of your manuscript, you own 100% of all the rights to reproduce, publish, sell, and/or distribute your words in whatever manner you see fit. Your manuscript belongs to you and you only from the moment you write it.

Now you’ve decided you want to publish that manuscript into book format with the hopes you’ll earn some money (or educate people, or entertain people, or whatever your personal reasoning for publishing it). There are a few different routes you might take toward having your book published, and each of these book publishing methods affects your copyright ownership a little differently.

Some authors will submit their manuscripts to a traditional (trade) publisher for consideration in the hopes it will be published free of charge to them. What they may not realize is that whoever is paying for the publication of a book is the one who owns the primary rights to that book. Trade book publishers don’t agree to 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 primary copyright ownership of your manuscript. In this business model, writers retain only basic “publishing rights” that recognize them as the author of the book and pay them a small percentage of the retail price in royalties (usually only up to 10% per copy sold). The trade publisher keeps the rest because the trade publisher owns the book. And, as the owner of the book, that trade publisher also reserves the right to sell off additional rights for additional profit down the road.

Authors who choose the vanity publishing route usually retain 100% ownership of their written words; however, if the vanity publisher has produced the cover artwork for them, the vanity publisher usually (nine times out of 10) retains the rights to that artwork. This means 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 even Asia. All this means is that the publisher reserves the right to sell/distribute copies of the book through their online channels (i.e. for the duration of the contract; however, because it is a “non-exclusive” contract, the author (and any other distributor designated by the author) is also free to sell copies of the book within those regions, too. If it was an “exclusive” contract, then that publisher would be the only one allowed to sell the book online within those regions.

Last but not least, authors can also choose to publish through a supportive self-publishing house like PPG where they will retain 100% copyright ownership of both their words and their artwork. That said, much like the contracts with vanity publishers, a contract with a supportive self-publishing house will also include “non-exclusive online distribution rights” throughout North America, the United Kingdom, Europe, and possibly even Asia for a specified term. This gives authors much greater exposure worldwide without limiting their ability to sell wholesale author copies on their own.

For a more detailed comparison of these three book publishing models, click here.

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 copyright ownership … because this is when more business people will come knocking and asking to buy additional rights to your book. Maybe someone in Europe 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 the Francophone population for a profit. Maybe others will want to buy the “exclusive North American film rights” so they can adapt the book for film in this region. You can divvy up the rights to a book in so many different ways, it would be impossible to list them all here. But this gives you a very basic idea.

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 of that ownership as you can right from the start. And then, when the movie producers and foreign publishers start calling, hire a copyright lawyer to help you determine the best price for each sale of rights.

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