5 Things Every Writer Should Know About Rights

Most writers I know fall into 1 of 2 camps: people who are (overly) concerned that someone will steal their work, and innocents who don’t take time to learn what rights they ought to be protecting.

So I’d like to outline the 5 things every writer should know about their rights (and, by extension, other people’s rights).

1. Your work is protected under copyright as soon as you put it in tangible form.
Your work doesn’t need to be published to be protected, and you do not have to display the copyright symbol on your manuscript to have it protected. (One of the reasons there is so much confusion surrounding this issue is that the law changed in the 1970s.)

Since your work is copyrighted from the moment you create it, the existence or validity of your copyright will not be affected if you don’t register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office. (And, in fact, you can register the work after you find infringement and still be afforded all the protections as if you had registered it earlier.)

2. For shorter works (non-books), publications automatically acquire one-time rights unless specified otherwise in the contract.
The current law puts the burden on the publication to notify the author in writing if it wants to acquire any rights other than one-time rights (that is, the right to publish the work one time). The law also contains termination provisions that allow an author to regain rights she assigned to others, after a specific period.

3. Your work cannot accidentally fall into the public domain.

Any published or distributed material on which a copyright has expired is considered to be in the public domain—that is, available for use by any member of the general public without payment to, or permission from, the original author.

It used to be that your work might accidentally fall into the public domain if not protected under copyright or published with the copyright symbol. This is not the case any longer.

4. Selling various rights to your work doesn’t affect your ownership of the copyright.
Various rights are all part of your copyright, but selling them in no way diminishes your ownership of the actual work. The only way you can give up copyright entirely is if you sign a contract or agreement that stipulates it is a “work for hire.”

5. You can quote other people’s work in your own work, without permission, as long as you abide by fair use guidelines.
The downside here is that there are no hard-and-fast rules as to what constitutes fair use of a copyrighted work.

The law says that four factors should be considered in determining if a use is fair:

  1. the purpose and character of the use (commercial vs. not-for-profit/educational)
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the entire quoted work
  4. the effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the quoted work

Most publishers have their own fair-use guidelines that they ask their own authors to abide by. But, if you’re picking up only a few hundred words from a full-length book, it’s probably fair use. Always be extremely careful when quoting poetry or song lyrics—ANY use at all usually requires permission (and a fee).

For more authoritative info on this topic, I highly recommend signing up for an online educational session next week, with lawyer Amy Cook, who specializes in publishing law. You’ll be able to ask questions live: Copyright and Contracts

Alternatively, you can read more from these authoritative sources:

If you know of any good resources on copyright and fair use, please share them in the comments!

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16 thoughts on “5 Things Every Writer Should Know About Rights

    1. ruckeme

      hi jane, i would be happy to know where i can find the information under #1. i have been unable to locate this data in your above-mentioned references. i understand this (automatic protection) does not apply to patent law, so i am curious where you found this exception in copyright law. thanks!

  1. Kris Dalpiaz

    I agree and have no intention of paying to copyright my unpublished material. You’ll find no delusions of grandeur here.

    Your point about having to prove damages is exactly why I brought up the benefit of copyrighting. If your work is registered, the burden of proving damages is lessened. Also, I’m not sure if unpublished material falls under the 5 year protection umbrella or if that’s just published material.

    I wanted to expand on the copyright information you provided for the same reason you posted it: some people are overly worried about protecting what they’ve done. They want to know the best way to protect their work. I’m not trying to convince people one way or another on whether to copyright (like I said, I’m not paying to copyright my work), just trying to provide a little more info.

  2. Bailish

    Thanks for the clear explanations. As a followup, I’d like to know what types of threats we as writers need to be concerned about. If I post sections of my writing to a public forum, is this risky behavior?

  3. Jane Friedman

    @Kris – Well, as I said, you can still register for copyright after you discover infringement, and be afforded the same protections.

    But for sake of argument — suing for damages? What kind of damages are you envisioning? Good luck in proving damages (worth suing over) when it comes to a piece of unpublished writing (whether fiction or nonfiction).


    Writing and publishing of fiction/nonfiction is not exactly lucrative, and it’s extremely difficult to market it — or to get anyone to pay for a piece of unproven writing, or to publish it.

    In fact, I’d argue it would be miraculous for an officially uncopyrighted work to be profited on by an unscrupulous person. In fact, I’ve never heard of such a case in my life.

  4. Kris Dalpiaz

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is if you don’t register your work for a copyright, you don’t have much of a leg to stand on if you want to sue for damages. It would be up to you to prove the value of your work, and the only value you are assured without a registered copyright is the price of the paper your work is printed on. Registering for a copyright guarantees a certain amount in damages without you having to prove the value of your work.

  5. Jane Friedman

    @Colleen – Excellent! So glad it’s helpful. Yes, be very careful about quoting song lyrics. I don’t know of anyone who has been able to do so without paying a very hefty permissions fee.

    If you have a copyright certificate for your work, it doesn’t affect a publishing agreement, though if you’re working with a traditional book publisher, you should inform them about it. (They will almost certainly re-register the work for the edition they publish.)

  6. Chris Pham

    Hey! As well getting through all my holiday homework (because I just absolutely just love college life) I too am gonna do some blogging of my own as well!
    Yet reading your latest blog, I was wondering if those legalities apply to Australia as well?

  7. Colleen Fong

    This is a timely summary for me as I would like to quote some song lyrics. Thank you for the heads up on the differences. When an author obtains a copyright certificate, will that affect a publishing agreement in any way?