Do You Know Your Rights?

Girl with teddy

I’ve written a lot previously about the basics of copyright and protecting your work online for bloggers.

One of the things I often tell people is that you don’t have to do anything for the words and images you create to be protected by copyright – the moment you use skill to put words into a certain order, you are protected by copyright.

But it’s possible to assign copyright in a piece of work to someone else – to sell, or give it away.

Let’s say I write an article for a newspaper. The rate I agree for my work depends on a number of things – the number of words, the deadline, the section the work will appear in. It also depends on what rights the paper wants to buy.

I might sell the paper First British Serial Rights (FBSR) which means it has the right to be the first to print my work in the UK.

I am then free to sell the article to an american magazine by offering them the first US serial rights. Or I might sell the article to a different UK publication by offering them second British rights. I might negotiate my rates upwards if someone asks for all British rights, or for online usage rights, for example. And retaining ownership of my article means that if the newspaper wants to syndicate my work (sell it to another newspaper) then they must agree in advance with me, and pay me an agreed percentage of the sale price. 

Understanding rights is vital in helping professional creatives to make a living. It means we can make more money from each piece of work, by selling it several times, or by charging more to clients who want the exclusive right to use a work.

Of course, clients are equally keen to get as much content for as little cash as possible – hence the rise of what’s known as the “rights grab”. This is a contract that includes a clause somewhere in the small print that asks you to hand over all rights to your work.

What does this mean? Let’s imagine you send a photo of your child in a doctor’s outfit to a women’s magazine. They ask you to sign a release, which includes a clause asking you to grant the magazine all rights to use the image (they may or may not ask for copyright).

Six months later, the magazine could decide to license the image on to a commercial agency, which is producing public health leaflets. So one day, you see your child's photograph being used to promote the MMR vaccine. Or perhaps illustrating an article about nits. Or divorce. Or pushy parents.

The point being that if you've signed away all rights, not only are you not getting paid for these things, you have zero control over where and how the image is used. And if you've also signed away your moral rights, you don't even have the right to be identified as the photographer.I'm not saying that signing away all rights is always bad – but you should know when you’re doing it, and you should be confident that the compensation you’re getting, whether that’s payment or publicity, is worthwhile.

How do you know you’re dealing with a rights grab? Whenever you submit your work to ANYONE – a publisher, a website, newspaper, competition – keep an eye out for terms and conditions such as these:

“We reserve the right to publish your contribution in all the media formats which we publish now or in the future, including print and online and offline electronic media…”


“You irrevocably and unconditionally grant to us all necessary rights for the full period of copyright …”

And how about…

“You waive any so-called moral rights in the work as set out in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 that you now have or may acquire in the work.”

It’s tempting to think that you’re powerless when faced with this sort of contract. If you don’t sign, they won’t work with you, right?

Well, it might cheer you up to know that the NUJ says it doesn’t know of a single UK publisher that hasn’t backed down at least some of the way, when freelance contributors have refused to sign rights-grabs. And in 12 years as a journalist, I've crossed our unacceptable clauses in contracts before sending them back, and only once lost work as a result.

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