This article is mainly aimed at the UK copyright situation. It has to be country-specific, as there are a few differences between the UK and, say, the USA. Other countries may vary even more widely, so I won’t even try to discuss their copyright jungle. I’m sure that most countries, and certainly the UK and the USA, have their copyright laws available online – search Google for your specific query. If you can’t find what you need, please feel free to ask me. Likewise, if you have anything to add, please do.
Some UK journals and magazines tell their contributing authors that they cannot re-use their work anywhere else, without having a signed agreement to this effect, and this includes material that has already appeared in such magazines in the past. This is not necessarily the case, unless you specifically signed a piece of paper saying that you’re giving up all rights to your work.
The copyright for everything that you write automatically belongs to you as soon as it’s published, unless:
- You agree in writing to give up the copyright. This sometimes happens with “packager-type” book publishers, where you give up copyright in exchange for a large (hopefully…), one-off payment.
- You normally licence your work to a book publisher, so that you keep the copyright, but allow them to use the work in various, stated ways. The publisher will usually want the exclusive right to use the work for the duration agreed and within the terms of the contract.
- A magazine editor commissions you to write an article, pays you and takes “first serial rights”. This can be a complex matter, and you may have to pay the magazine a royalty if you wish to re-use the article somewhere else and receive a second fee from it. This is similar to the sale of book or film rights. Check your agreement to discover exactly what you are agreeing to beforehand, and stick to the terms of the contract afterwards. With a magazine, you stand little chance of getting them to amend the agreement.
- You contribute a piece that becomes part of something else with a variety of contributors and/or a large input by the magazine’s sub-editor.
- You sign an agreement giving up all your rights.
In some cases, a magazine may print a note in one or all of its issues to the effect that all contributors automatically give up their copyright to their work. This is not legal or binding on you, unless your agreement with them says so. Having said this, you may wish to cover yourself by adding a note to any work that you submit, stating that the copyright of the work remains with you. Thereafter, you can put the article on your own website or use it for something else if you so wish, as long as you honour the rest of the agreement.
The general rule about copyright is that you should never give it up unnecessarily, and certainly never do so where you are writing something out of the goodness of your heart and for no fee.
As far as work that you have done in the past is concerned, barring previous agreements that may still be in force, the copyright stays in your hands, because laws don’t retroactively imperil you in any democratic country.
Please don’t take the above information as gospel; things can change swiftly. In fact, the UK government is currently reviewing copyright legislation with a view to making content more accessible. I can only hope that they take on board the views of our Publishers’ Association and author bodies such as the Society of Authors, because it’s already hard enough to make money from writing today.