One of the fun things about going to writers’ conferences as a publisher and editor as well as a poet is that I often get to give talks on the publishing end of literature. Of course, I love talking about the craft of writing, but I’m an odd duck in that I also happen to love the arcane details of publishing. One of the topics that writers typically want to discuss at conferences is that of rights. What are they, anyway? How do you know if you’ve used them? How does a writer protect her work?
Let me start by saying that I am by no means one of the great legal minds of my generation. Anything I know about, say, criminal law comes from some serious time put into the watching of Law and Order and its many franchises. So it should go without saying—but I’ll say it—that if you have a tricky legal question, you should talk to a lawyer about it. What you’ll read below isn’t intended to be a substitute for legal counsel—just an overview of rights as they pertain to literary work. Alright? Alright.
What are first rights, anyway?
You’ll often see magazines and journals ask for “FNASR” (first North American Serial Rights) or simply “First Rights” in their guidelines. What journals are talking about here is the right to be the first venue to publish a particular piece. After the work is published—the ink hits the page or the text hits the internet—you’re free to sell (or, in the case of most literary work, give) the piece to another venue for reprinting. (For a more detailed discussion of FNASR, take a look at this article by Marg Gilks. Please ignore the web design straight out of 1997—this is one the best best articles available dealing with the many variations of rights.) The most important thing to understand about FNASR or First Rights is that, when you give these rights to a publisher, you’re guaranteeing that you’ve not published the work before.
If all rights revert to me, why can’t I sell or use first rights again?
First means first. Even when we’re doing creative-writer math, there’s only one first use of anything. If you choose to print a piece on your blog, for example, you’re making the choice to use your first rights—your first publication—on that blog. The First Rights for that piece have now been used. You’re free to seek reprints of that work, but if you approach a magazine with a piece that’s already been printed, even online, with the claim that you’re offering First Rights on the piece, you’re misleading the publisher. She’s not going to be happy when she finds out that the piece has been printed elsewhere. There are some journals that do not consider blog posts to be prior publication, and still other journals that have no difficulty reprinting work, but these journals are few; if in any doubt after reading a magazine’s guidelines, ask. Never assume it’s a good idea to submit previously published work without verifying that you’re welcome to do so.
But why should magazines care if I’ve already published a piece on my website?
An ideal publishing world looks like this: the writer sends me, the editor/publisher, an awesome piece of work. I buy the first rights to that work for fair fee, then I print that work at my expense. Finally, a reader recognizes the value of the work, and pays me, the editor/publisher, for a copy of that work. Great content flows to the reader, money flows to the writer and publisher.
The literary world is not, however, ideal. From journals that can’t afford to pay writers to readers who demand content for free, we have quite a few challenges to our literary ecosystem. As a writer, you don’t want to be part of the problem; if you provide a poem or story for free on your blog, readers will not buy a copy of a journal in order to read it, and a journal can’t sustain itself without a readership. If you care about writers—yourself included—being able to publish in journals and receive fair payment for work, then you won’t want to try to game the system.
What about protecting myself as a writer? Do I need to copyright my work?
So now that you understand how to help journals, how do you help yourself as a writer? Quite a few poets and authors tell me they’re worried about their work’s being stolen by editors or other writers, and they want to know whether they should copyright their work.
In short, it’s probably overkill for most of us to register copyright on poems, stories, or essays. Anything you write, as long as it’s your original work, is already protected by what’s called “basic copyright” without your taking any steps at all. If somebody infringes on your work, you can pursue a legal remedy to the problem under basic copyright. Registering a copyright with the US government—which involves paying the government a fee—simply gives you expanded legal protection. You could sue a person who infringed on your work for a greater sum of money and for legal fees if you have a registered copyright.
But let’s take a moment for a reality check: most of us aren’t going to find ourselves in such riotous demand—or, let’s face it—having produced such incredibly lucrative poems that we’ll ever find ourselves being infringed upon, much less in need of legal help to resolve the situation. In the unlikely event that we are, it’s great to know that basic copyright already has us reasonably well covered without our taking any further, more expensive steps.
If you’re still worried that your work might be taken and used without your consent, one of the best things you can do is be selective about where you send your work. Send material to respectable, established journals, not to Jimmy Bob’s Baloney Review. Good journals stick around for a reason—they treat their authors well, and contribute to a healthy literary ecosystem.