Skip to main content

5 Things Every Writer Should Know About Rights

Image placeholder title

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!

Writer's Digest Best Live Streams, Podcasts, and YouTube Channels 2022

Writer's Digest Best Live Streams, Podcasts, and YouTube Channels 2022

Here are the top live streams, podcasts, and YouTube channels as identified in the 24th Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

What Is Fan Fiction in Writing?

What Is Fan Fiction in Writing?

You might have heard the term, especially if you’re in online fandoms, but what exactly is fan fiction? Managing Editor Moriah Richard explains.

5 Ways To Use Short Stories To Grow as a Writer

5 Ways To Use Short Stories To Grow as a Writer

Short story writing can be a gateway to writing your novel—but they’re also fun and worthy stories in their own right. Here, author Dallas Woodburn shares 5 ways to use short stories to grow as a writer.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Having an Online Presence

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not having an online presence.

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Shirlene Obuobi: On Writing From Experience

Physician, cartoonist, and author Shirlene Obuobi discusses the writerly advice that led to writing her new coming-of-age novel, On Rotation.

WD Poetic Form Challenge

WD Poetic Form Challenge: Kimo Winner

Learn the winner and Top 10 list for the Writer’s Digest Poetic Form Challenge for the kimo.

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

Tattoos and their artists can reveal interesting details about your characters and offer historical context. Here, author June Gervais shares 8 things writers should know about tattoos.

Tyler Moss | Reporting Through Lens of Social Justice

Writing Through the Lens of Social Justice

WD Editor-at-Large Tyler Moss makes the case for reporting on issues of social justice in freelance writing—no matter the topic in this article from the July/August 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character leave clues for people to find them.