You can’t change what you’ve signed already, but here’s how to make sure you’re protected going forward.
I’ve never met a writer who wanted to sell all rights to their work. Sometimes we feel we have no choice if we want a paycheck. But equally often, we don’t fight hard enough to keep our rights, because what difference is it going to make anyway, right?
In September 2007, the book Bad Dogs Have More Fun by John Grogan was published. It was hot on the heels of the success of Grogan’s New York Times bestselling book Marley & Me, which also inspired a movie. But Grogan didn’t want his readers to buy this book.
The reason? It had been compiled, edited, and published without his consent. In fact, it was published despite his opposition.
How is that possible?
As a columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Grogan had signed away all rights to his weekly column, which meant that the newspaper owned everything he had written for them. When Grogan became a household name worldwide, they decided to publish this book. Grogan received not a cent in royalties.
As employees of newspapers and magazines, we may not have the opportunity to retain the rights to our work. We typically sell all rights to our writing for the period of employment, in exchange for a regular wage. That’s the nuts and bolts of an employment contract. As freelancers, however, we receive none of the benefits of employment. That’s our choice. When we agree to write for a publication, we are under no obligation to sell the rights—in all perpetuity—to our work. We own our work. We sell the publication the right to publish it, not own it. That’s not to say some publications don’t try to demand you sell all rights in exchange for the “privilege” of writing for them. It’s to say you should think long and hard about whether you accept the deal.
It seems unlikely that a short story or essay we wrote could ever become a movie plot, but think of Brokeback Mountain (which stemmed from a short story) or Coyote Ugly (from a magazine article).
If you were the author of said pieces, wouldn’t you want a share of the movie pie?
In fact, if you’ve written any essays or articles for Conde Nast that could potentially spawn movie projects, you might want to check your contracts. Last year, Wooden Horse Publishing noted that Conde Nast CEO Charles Townsend is “hot on CNE [Condé Nast Entertainment division], which develops, creates, produces and distributes original television, film and digital initiatives based on the company’s brands. Articles in Conde Nast magazines have already been turned into movies (Brokeback Mountain, Eat, Pray, Love and Argo, to name a few)—but not by Conde Nast. That will change now with the creation of CNE.”
In fact, the Horse quoted CNE President Dawn Ostroff as saying that her division intends to take “some of the great stories from our magazines and do them for the screen ourselves.” That’s some 80,000 archived articles, according to the Horse.
Are any of those articles yours? Did you sell all rights to them? Townsend said they’ll propose partnerships, not outright ownerships. But let’s not forget that this is a business. And if you’ve signed a work-for-hire contract, Conde Nast legally doesn’t owe you a dime.
Scary stuff, huh?
You can’t change what you’ve signed already, but you can make sure you’re protected going forward.
Don’t sell all rights
This is easier said than done. Many times (and these days, I’d say most times) your editor’s legal department won’t negotiate and won’t budge. I try to negotiate to the best of my ability with an editor, but there are some lines I will never allow them to cross.
For instance, I’m reluctantly okay for my editor to acquire full rights to a piece about the rise of green technology in India. It’s a trend piece and probably won’t resell. Plus, I can write it differently in any number of ways without violating my contract, not to mention that if they want to make a movie out of it, well, I can’t really take credit for eco-friendly architectural designs. They may benefit from some of my research, but I don’t feel it’s my story. I’m okay with them producing a documentary about it without my involvement. (Though it would still suck.)
However, that essay I wrote about my cross-cultural relationship and the hilarity that ensued when I decided to date and marry a British guy? Mine. All mine. It’s my goddamn story and I will not give it away for a byline and a few hundred bucks.
First, I’d quite like to revisit this story—you know, the one about my own life.
Second, if anyone wants to make a film about it, they’ll damn well have to negotiate with me. I’d like some moolah, thankyouverymuch. (And I’d like to negotiate the amount of said moolah, which I can’t if I sold the rights to an essay about my own life).
There are some stories I will never sell all rights to. At least, not unless I see a lot of zeroes.
So, that “How To Be More Creative” feature? Sell all rights to it. No one cares. But don’t sell all rights to an investigative feature on medical testing done on the unsuspecting poor in the developing world. There’s a movie or documentary in there somewhere. If it’s ever made, you definitely want a part in it, not just for the money, but for input on how it’s shaped and how your work is used.
Negotiate contracts to the last letter
You can add or take out clauses from your contract that guarantee your protection, but don’t cost you the assignment. For instance, if the editor (or her legal department) insists on buying all rights to your work, throw in a clause that says you’ll be compensated 50% of the original fee for each additional use. Or mention that they own rights for periodicals, but you retain movie and book rights.
In my book The Freelance Writer’s Guide to $1,000 More This Month, there is an entire chapter on negotiation tactics that has helped readers get thousands of dollars more for their work, as well as a chapter on reselling your work.
You can’t do that if you don’t retain rights to it.
Be willing to walk away
Your rights are valuable. That’s why publications want you to sign them away. No one can force you into a contract that diminishes the value of your work or takes away future potential. Only you have the power to do that. If you sign away rights, do so knowing what you’re getting into, what the potential consequences are, and know that you’re okay with it.
Knowledge, as they say, is power. Retain your power.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more. She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators. Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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