Copyright laws can often confuse the beginning writer. Basically, though, copyright means you have exclusive rights over your writing unless you decide to sell those rights to someone else. It’s never a good idea to do this, however, as it means you forego all future royalties and any say in where, when and in what, your work is published. If, for instance, you’ve sold your copyright, and your novel/script becomes a blockbuster movie, you won’t earn a penny more than the fee originally paid for the copyright, no matter how many millions the film may make.

There’s no copyright in titles, ideas, themes, plots or facts, as all these, theoretically, can be worked into different end products by different writers.

Copyright comes into play the second you put your idea into tangible form, whether it’s in a notebook, a computer or scrawled on a piece of toilet paper. It isn’t necessary (at least in Europe – United States laws are different and need to be checked) to register copyright at Stationers Hall, or send your work to yourself in a sealed envelope, as is commonly thought. The copyright symbol © followed by your name and the year, is enough to establish your copyright for that work.

In Europe, at least, copyright lasts until 70 years after the death of the author. It thus follows that it’s easier (and potentially cheaper) to quote Shakespeare rather than Sheldon (from whom you’d not only have to ask permission, but possibly also have to pay, for the privilege of quoting).

Note: Writers often tend to panic unnecessarily about copyright. Infringement is not as common as you may think. For one thing, if your writing’s that good, publishers/agents/magazines will want to market it and if it isn’t, no-one will want to pinch it anyway.

SERIAL RIGHTS (stories and articles)Edit

By offering First Serial Rights, you’re selling the editor/publisher the right to publish that particular piece for the first time in that country, although you still retain copyright. Thus, on a story/article submitted to an editor/publisher in the UK you should type on the cover sheet ‘First British Serial Rights offered’. You can then, however, send exactly the same story/article to as many other publishers in as many other countries as you like, but amending the Serial Rights offered to First Canadian Serial Rights, First Australian Serial Rights and so on. What you can’t do, is offer First Rights to several publishers in the same country (unless you want to get blacklisted, that is).

If you do decide to send the same work to another publisher in the same country, you must then offer Second British (Canadian/Australian/American) Serial Rights, although most publishers are not particularly interested in these and, if they do accept them, will pay much less than for First Rights. Second Rights are as far as it goes, so even if you submit your piece to 10, 20, or 30 different publications in the same country, you still only offer Second Rights.


In the case of books, you sell Volume Rights, which give the publisher the right to publish, reprint (in hardcover and paperback) and negotiate translations and other Subsidiary Rights including Electronic Rights. Again, you retain copyright.


Unless you’re Ian Hislop, or have a lot of spare time (for court appearances) and cash (to cough up when you lose the case), libel is best avoided at all costs. Make sure no-one (not even your dearest friend) can recognise themselves in any of your less savoury characters and preferably not in any of the (in your opinion) nicer ones, either. It’s best, too, not to use names of people you know, in case someone takes offence. Editors and publishers will be none too pleased if, after they’ve published your piece, you get a libel claim slapped on you by an irate relative/friend/celebrity. It’s perfectly OK to write a nasty review of a book or play, but it’s not OK to make defamatory comments about the author/playwright/performers unless you’re prepared to part with thousands should they decide to sue. Don’t write offensive comments about anyone’s dear-departed relative, either, in case those still living decide to take umbrage.


In general, you won’t be offered a contract for articles or short stories (unless it’s a collection). The most obvious point is – read it through carefully and make sure you understand the terms before you sign anything. In the case of an e-book, make sure you understand the difference between ‘exclusive’ and ‘non-exclusive’ Electronic Rights. If in any doubt about anything, ask the publisher to explain. A reputable one will never mind doing so as he, too, will want to avoid possible confusion and/or misunderstandings later on.

Never agree to have your book published without being offered a contract.

Make sure the contract stipulates that you retain copyright (never sell your copyright!) and that it clearly states the duration of the contract.

Are you being paid an advance? Note: Unless you’re an already well-established author, don’t expect this to be a huge sum unless (as in the case of JK Rowling) you really get lucky and have written a potential blockbuster.

Check who’s expected to pay for any illustrations/photographs. It could be you, in which case you may well be obliged to pay for them from your advance, possibly diminishing it considerably.

Don’t be unrealistic. Make sure you can complete the book by the stipulated date. If you don’t think you can, ask for more time.

How often will your royalties be paid? On a quarterly, six-monthly, or yearly basis?


Last, but by no means least, we have Public Lending Rights. These are always paid directly to you and never to your publisher or agent. PLR’s are calculated on how many times your book is borrowed from public libraries and you should apply for PLR as soon as your book is published. Write for more information and/or an application form to:


Public Lending Right Office,

Bayheath House,

Prince Regent Street,


Cleveland TS18 1DF

I’ve only touched on the above subjects very briefly – The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is an invaluable source if you need more extensive and detailed information.

© Andrea Lowne 2001