Monday, January 21, 2019

Know Your (Copy)rights

October 19, 2009 by Jane Ross  
Filed under Blog, Publishing, Self publishing

So you want to submit your writing to magazines? Here are some basic tips about rights.

What is Copyright?

Whenever you create an original work (for example, when you write a story about your life), your piece of work is automatically covered by copyright law.

Your “copyright” is the right you have to decide how, when, and where your original work, your story, is reproduced. It is against the law for anyone else to copy that work or to publish that work without your permission.


© Dawn Hudson |

You do not have to register the copyright for it to exist. If you’ve written a memoir only for your family, you might not bother to register its copyright. However, if you are going to circulate your story more widely and think you might want to publish it in the mainstream press or submit parts of it to magazines, it would be a good idea to register the copyright. That way you can prove that the work is yours, should there ever be a dispute. To learn about registering a copyright in the US, you can visit the website of the US Copyright Office (part of the Library of Congress) at

Copyright actually encompasses a large number of different rights, which you can offer, give away, or sell to many different kinds of publications. Let’s look at the kinds of licenses that are most commonly used in the small-press magazine business.


Whenever you offer or submit a story for publication and it is accepted and appears in print (or on the web), we say you have licensed the publisher to publish that story and you have transferred certain rights to the publisher. This is true even if you don’t sign a contract and even if you are not paid for your story.

The usual magazine-publishing industry understanding is that, if there is no contract, then on the story’s acceptance for publication in a periodical, the author transfers First North American Serial Rights (FNASR) to the publisher but retains all other rights. FNASR means the publisher has the right to be the first to publish this story in North America in a periodical (such as a journal or magazine or newspaper). However with more and more print magazines also publishing online, some are rolling Electronic Rights in with FNASR.


Many small magazines do not bother with formal contracts when they accept stories and articles for publication. Sometimes their standard contract terms are listed on their Writers’ Guidelines web pages. But many small-press magazine editors assume that there is an unspoken understanding throughout the industry about what rights you transfer to magazines of their type.

From your point of view as the author, don’t be shy about asking for clarification about rights. You can ask your questions even after your story is already accepted for publication (though don’t wait until it is nearly at press to ask). If you don’t like the answer, you can tell the editor you’re offering only FNASR or you can withdraw your story.

For example, an editor might tell you that their magazine wants FNASR including Electronic Rights. Electronic Rights means the right to publish on the Internet, on a CD or DVD, and on any kind of electronic format. Once you’ve transferred Electronic Rights to a publisher, it is going to be much more difficult to ever have this story accepted for publication anywhere else. So you might tell the magazine editor that you don’t wish to license Electronic Rights and try and negotiate this point.

A Non-Profit Newsletter’s Writers’ Guidelines

I was the Editor in Chief of the quarterly newsletter of the non-profit Story Circle Network (SCN) for four years. When a member submitted a story to me for publication in the Story Circle Journal and it was accepted, the author was licensing FNASR to the organization. SCN reserved the right to hold a story for up to a year from the date of acceptance. If we did not publish the story within a year, then FNASR reverted back to the author. Content that appeared in the printed Journal was not posted on the web.

Occasionally SCN invited story submissions to its website. If an author submitted a story to the SCN website and it was accepted, then the author transferred One-Time Internet Rights to SCN. The story would appear on the SCN website but SCN would not publish it in any other form without the author’s permission. Of course, we had no way of preventing someone who is browsing the Internet from copying a story from the web and reprinting it or reposting it or passing it off as their own.

Suppose an author had a story appear in print in the Story Circle Journal and wanted to offer the same piece for publication elsewhere, such as to a special interest magazine. The author would have a legal obligation to mention to the second magazine’s editor that the piece had appeared in print elsewhere. FNASR are not available in this case, but One-Time Rights or Second Rights or Reprint Rights are available. Generally, if an article has appeared in a small, limited-circulation publication, most other magazines won’t have any problem with this. (The Journal would be considered a small publication.)

Of course, if the author substantially rewrites the story, then it may become a new work and he or she would be free to offer FNASR to another publication and may not need to mention that the earlier piece had appeared in elsewhere.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and does not constitute legal advice. If you have specific questions about publication rights or the copyright of your stories, you should consult a lawyer or contact the National Writers’ Union.

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