Simon says - The womag market is ever-changing, and one area that continues to change is the contract womag writers are offered. Gone are the days when womags asked for First British Serial Rights.
As soon as we create something our creation is protected by copyright. It’s automatic. We don’t have to register it. (Things are slightly different in the USA, but that’s down to their legal system.) It’s the Berne Convention that explores the principles ofcopyright, which many countries (but not all) have signed up to.
Owning the copyright in our work enables us to exploit our creation. It gives us the right to grant licences to others to make use of our words, usually (hopefully!) for some money! Once you give (or sign away) your copyright you no longer have the right to give others permission to use your work. The new copyright holder now has that permission. So never sign away your copyright, unless you fully understand the consequences.
As copyright holders, we license our short stories, and this license usually covers three main areas:
1) Media format (print, electronic, etc)
2) Region (Britain, Australia, Worldwide … I’ve even seen ‘The Universe’ used once!)
3) Time period (12 months, 18 months, exclusively)
The traditional First British Serial Rights we used to offer would give a magazine the right to be the first in Britain to print our story in a physical magazine (hence the word ‘serial’). Because we’d given them first British rights, we could also offer first rights in other countries at the same time (Australia, South Africa, etc). Until that magazine published the story in Britain, we couldn’t do anything else with it (in print format) in Britain. Once the magazine had published it in Britain, we could (in theory) offer another British magazine Second British Serial rights.
Publishing is Changing
But the world has changed. People read digital versions of magazines on their tablets and smartphones. Magazine companies HAD to change their contracts just to keep up with technology. They needed to ask for electronic rights, so they could legally use our stories in their digital versions of their publications. Magazine companies have also consolidated, buying other magazine organisations around the world, and their contracts now reflect this. It means we MUST understand what we’re signing up to when we sign a contract, because we’re legally bound by it.
It doesn’t help that some legal departments don’t fully understand their own contracts. Several years ago, I sent one contract to the Society of Authors (members can use their free contract vetting service), where I was told that the contract contradicted itself so many times it wouldn’t stand up in a court of law. (And this was from a well-known womag publisher.)
One womag publisher asks for First Use With Extensions. This means they want to be the first to publish your story. (And as no region has been stipulated then they're asking to be the first in the World.) The contract goes on to explain that extensions means in any media format. So they may use their first right in print, or electronically, or in any other format they can think of. Usually, it’ll be print format, but the contract gives them the flexibility to use it digitally, or even on the back of a baked bean tin, if that’s what they wish.
This contract also asks for an 18-month exclusivity arrangement, which means the story can’t appear in any other format, anywhere in the World, for 18 months after the womag has first used it. (Note, that’s not 18 months after they accepted the story from you, but 18 months after they first published it.) Exclusive means just that - no one else can use that story … including you. So if you want to create an anthology of your short stories and sell that on Amazon, you can’t use this story in such an anthology until 18 months after the womag has published it. (At this point, I should clarify that this particular contract does say ‘without prior written agreement from the publisher’ - so, in theory, you may be able to do something before the 18 months is up, but you need the womag publisher’s written permission to do so.)
Consider the Contract As A Whole
Always read a contract in its entirety. For example, one womag publisher asks for First World Rights, which means they want to be the first in the world to print your story. That may seem reasonable. In theory, once they’ve published it in the UK, you can still offer first rights to another publication in another country. However, this particular womag publisher has a clause that says they also have the right to re-use your material (for free) in any other magazine owned by their company, anywhere in the world. At first glance this may not look too troubling. But suppose you sell First Australian Serial Rights in your story to an Australian magazine, giving them the right to be the first magazine in Australia to use your story, and then you discover that the British magazine has just used your story (for free) in one of their own Australian magazines? The magazine you’ve just sold First Australian Rights to, can’t now use those rights, because they’ve already been used!
Of course, if the British company doesn’t own any Australian magazines then you know you can safely sell First Australian Rights directly to an Australian magazine. But once you’ve sold a story, you have to be careful about where else you offer it to, to ensure you don’t break any clauses in the contracts you have already signed up to.
You may see moral rights being referred to in a contract. Moral rights are those which give us the right to be recognised as the creator of the story. This is sometimes called the right of paternity, and means we should be credited as the writer, because this work is our own creation. Some contracts ask for the moral rights to be waived or removed. The reason for this is because editors sometimes rewrite stories. They may change the ending, or change characters names (because they have too many Janes or Traceys in this issue). Waiving, or removing, moral rights gives editors the flexibility to do this.
To Sum Up
This subject matter is too complex for a blog posting, and please remember, that I’m no legal expert either. But the golden rule should always be:
NEVER SIGN A CONTRACT UNLESS YOU UNDERSTAND IT IN ITS ENTIRETY!
And if you don’t understand something, then ask. No one will think any worse of you. In fact, and editor may respect you more for asking. It proves you’ve read the contract!
The Society of Authors provides a useful free guide to copyright andmoral rights (anyone can download a copy, it’s not just for members).
(PS, you don’t need to be a published author to join the Society. If you have had a ‘body of work’ published - such as articles, or short stories - then you may be eligible to join.
The National Union of Journalists also offer some basic advice about copyright.
The UK Government has some useful background information on copyright here.
About Simon Whaley
Simon Whaley’s short stories have appeared in The People’s Friend, Take a Break, Fiction Feast, The Weekly News, Ireland’s Own and Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special. He’s published an anthology of short stories: Ten Teatime Tales.
More information about Simon can be found on his website.