Skip to main content

How Do You Regain Copyrights to Pieces You've Sold?

  • Author:
  • Publish date:

Q: About 20 years ago, I sold a short story to a magazine. One line in my contract stated the payment was for “full rights” and another said, “On acceptance of this payment, the author transfers the copyright interest to … .” Does this mean I can’t sell the story ever again, even as a reprint? What if the magazine is no longer published?—P.A.‑Humphrey

A: Selling full rights to your work is like selling your car—once the contract is signed, you have no rights to the piece and can’t sell it again. Works created 20 years ago are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years, so the new owner has that copyright protection.

According to our legal expert Amy Cook, even if a magazine is defunct, someone, somewhere, still owns the copyright to your piece. If you want to sell that article again, you’ll need to get the rights back.

“Even if the company went out of business, copyrights are assets that can be bought and sold; they don’t just disappear,” Cook says. “However, if you can find out who currently controls the copyright, that person may be perfectly willing to transfer the rights back to you.”

Cook also notes that there’s a little-known loophole in the Copyright Act that says authors may terminate their copyright grants after 35 years (though it doesn’t apply to works-for-hire or copyrights transferred in wills). But this loophole still requires you to contact the existing copyright holder and inform her that you’re exercising the clause. It’s important to put it in writing. And if you’re doing this, I suggest consulting a lawyer first.

Your other option is to change the story to make it a new work. There’s no real formula when it comes to creating a new piece out of old material. It’s important to know that you can use the same idea, but the work can’t be “substantially similar” to the original piece. How similar is “substantially similar”? That’s up to the judge—if it ever comes to that.

Brian A. Klems is the online community editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at WritersDig@fwpubs.com with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Tuesday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.

Vérant

Samantha Vérant: On Romance and Recipes

Author Samantha Vérant discusses how her writing process changed while writing her new contemporary romance novel, The Spice Master at Bistro Exotique.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 633

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a warm up poem.

Do I Pitch Different to Agents vs. Editors?

Do I Pitch Different to Agents vs. Editors?

Every so often writers ask if they should pitch different to agents vs. editors. This post answers that question and provides some extra help on how to successfully pitch both.

Urban Legend

Urban Legend

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, feature an urban legend in your story.

Grose, 12:6

Jessica Grose: On the Unsustainability of Parenting

Opinion writer and author Jessica Grose discusses the complicated subject of modern motherhood in her new nonfiction book, Screaming on the Inside.

Elizabeth Shick: On Research Through Immersion

Elizabeth Shick: On Research Through Immersion

Award-winning novelist Elizabeth Shick discusses the complete rewrite she devoted to her debut novel, The Golden Land.

6 Habits Writers Can Learn From Athletes

6 Habits Writers Can Learn From Athletes

Author and athlete Henriette Lazaridis shares six tips and habits that writers can learn from athletes.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Last Chance to Nominate Your Favorite Writing Websites, Our Historical Fiction Virtual Conference, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce the deadline to nominate your favorite writing websites, our Historical Fiction Virtual Conference, and more!

4 Tips for Writing a Modern Retelling

4 Tips for Writing a Modern Retelling

From having reverence for the original to making it your own, author Nikki Payne shares four tips for writing a modern retelling.