Category Archives: Managing Authors’ Rights

Announcing the Authors Alliance Guide to Third-Party Permissions and How to Clear Them

Today, Authors Alliance is thrilled to announce the release of a brand new educational guide for authors: Third-Party Permissions and How to Clear Them, authored and edited by Authors Alliance staff. We were inspired to create this guide, the fifth in our series of author guides, by the myriad questions we receive from authors about the third-party permissions process. The difficulty for many authors is that publication contracts usually place the ultimate burden for clearing permissions and paying any associated fees on the author, but the legal issues involved can be difficult to wrap one’s head around, particularly when approaching the process for the first time. We created this guide in order to fill that gap, demystifying the legal and procedural aspects that can make permissions so challenging.

Our guide walks authors through the permissions process, beginning with an overview of copyright and publication contracts to help readers understand why permissions are required in the first place. Then, we explain circumstances in which permission is not required (like when the use of third-party materials is a fair use or the materials are in the public domain) to help authors determine whether to request permission in the first place. Next, we offer some tips on how to identify and locate a rightsholder and go over the process of actually securing the permission. Finally, we conclude with a discussion of potential options for authors who are unable to obtain permission after making a concerted effort to do so.

Our new guide covers both text and image permissions, and we note throughout where these two types of permissions work differently. We created the guide with the goal of making the permissions clearance process as clear and comprehensible as possible in order to demystify a part of the publication process that can be intimidating for first time and veteran authors alike.

Our guide is available today for free as a PDF under a CC-BY 4.0 license, and will be available to purchase as a print book later this year. We are indebted to the expert reviewers, publishers, and authors who helped us make this guide a reality and ensured it reflected the realities of third-party permissions in publishing as well as serving the needs of our diverse body of members. We are delighted to bring you this new resource, and hope it helps take some of the sting out of permissions so you can focus on what really matters: creating new works of authorship that can contribute to the commons of knowledge and help you reach your goals as an author.

Spotlight on Rights Reversion & Termination of Transfer

Posted June 9, 2021
Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash

Readers familiar with Authors Alliance’s work will know that we offer a suite of resources to help authors get back the rights to their works, including information on how to revert rights by exercising a contractual provision or through negotiating with a publisher and resources on how to terminate a transfer of copyrights under U.S. law. Authors who get their rights back can increase their works’ availability and reach more readers by making an out-of-print book more widely available, releasing their work in a more affordable format or under an open access license, or re-packaging and releasing books with a new look and feel.

In today’s post, we’ve gathered some resources about the concepts of rights reversion and termination. Whether you are a rights back newbie or a reversion and termination aficionado, we think you’ll learn something new by digging into these resources.

Reversion & Termination Basics

Rights Reversion
Reversion can be a powerful tool for authors, but many authors do not know where to start. A right of reversion is a contractual provision that permits authors to work with their publishers to regain some or all of the rights in their books when certain conditions are met. But authors may also be able to revert rights even if they have not met the triggering conditions in their contract, or if their contracts do not have a reversion clause at all. Our guide to Understanding Rights Reversion arms authors with the information and strategies they need to get their rights back and give their books a new life. We also provide templates and guidance on how to craft a persuasive rights reversion request letter.

Termination of Transfer
In the United States, termination of transfer laws enable authors to regain rights in their works that might have been signed away—even if their contracts contain language prohibiting it. To learn more about termination of transfer and how to evaluate whether a work is eligible for termination under U.S. law, authors can explore the Termination of Transfer Tool, which we developed in partnership with Creative Commons. Authors can also refer to Authors Alliance’s guidance and templates for how to provide notice of termination to rightsholders and record the termination with the U.S. Copyright Office.

A Deeper Dive

Reversion of Copyright in Europe
Assembling three contributions from a special section of the European Intellectual Property Review, this paper examines the topic of rights reversion in the context of the adoption of the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market (2019), which introduced a new right of revocation to the EU copyright framework entitling authors and performers to reclaim rights in their works when they are not being exploited (a “use-it-or-lose-it” principle). Included is an article by Ula Furgal which explains that there is a lack of understanding what “sufficient exploitation” means, especially in the digital context, which should be addressed when implementing the revocation right. Also included is an article by Elena Cooper which argues that the common law tradition of freedom of contract is compatible with constraints on contractual transfers, and that U.K. reversion provisions historically were a direct response to the significant increase in the copyright term in 1911.

Foreign Contracts and U.S. Copyright Termination Rights: What Law Applies?
Judge Richard Arnold and Professor Jane Ginsburg discuss the choice of law issues that arise when agreements which are subject to the laws of other countries assign U.S. copyrights and purport to do so in perpetuity. Arnold and Ginsburg examine the question of what law governs the permissible scope of an author’s grant in light of U.S. law’s inalienable termination rights. Using the recent U.S. and English cases, Ennio Morricone Music Inc. v. Bixio Music Group Ltd. and Gloucester Place Music Ltd v. Le Bon, to illustrate the problem, the authors conclude that U.S. termination rights cannot be overridden by a contract subject to a different law.

Making Sense of the Termination Right: How the System Fails Artists and How to Fix It
A report by Public Knowledge demonstrates how the termination right is failing to protect the very creators that termination was designed to serve. The report critiques the complex eligibility, timing, and filing formalities for termination, which are exacerbated by ambiguities in the law and its application. On top of the onerous procedural requirements, the report highlights power asymmetries governing the negotiation, assignment, and reversion of ownership rights that also harm authors—particularly creators of color—who seek to exercise their termination rights. The report recommends six policy actions to help restore fairness and functionality to termination of transfer rights.

Author’s Interest Project: Preliminary Findings on Benefits of Copyright Reversion
Preliminary findings from the Author’s Interest project suggest that granting authors minimum reversion rights would open new economic opportunities for authors and publishers and help promote ongoing availability to the public. The research suggests that there is a need to investigate minimum reversion rights addressing books that have reached the end of their commercial life, uses that are not being exploited, situations where publishers go into liquidation, and term limits akin to U.S. termination of transfer laws.

Non-Fungible Tokens, Ownership of Digital Objects, and Copyright

Posted April 13, 2021
Nyancat by Quinn Dombrowski, CC BY-SA 2.0

News about non-fungible tokens (“NFTs”) selling for eye-popping sums has been hard to miss. Nyan Cat, an iconic GIF of a cat with a Pop-Tart for a torso flying through space, sold for nearly $600,000. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s first tweet—a mere five words—recently sold for nearly $3,000,000. And an NFT representing digital artist Beeple’s Everydays: the First 5000 Days collage set a record in March as the third most expensive artwork ever sold from a living artist when it sold at a Christie’s auction for more than $69,000,000. 

While NFTs offer a new avenue for creators to get paid for digital assets, many have questions about what exactly an NFT holder “owns” in relation to the digital object and whether that ownership includes copyrights. This post explains these concepts and how they relate to ownership of physical objects.

NFTs are unique cryptographic assets that exist on a blockchain. NFTs facilitate the sale of digital items by providing owners of digital objects with a registration record to keep track of and verify the ownership of a digital file. Because NFTs can be used to represent unique digital items, they provide a way for individuals to own and collect “authentic” versions of digitally native assets.

Digital artists have struggled to monetize their creations since digital art can be readily copied and shared online in its original form. NFTs don’t change this: digital files represented by NFTs can still be copied and shared (setting aside the copyright implications of doing so). Instead, NFTs represent something that cannot be copied: the right to claim ownership of the underlying digital work. In this respect, NFTs can be used to create artificial scarcity by making only one NFT to represent a work, bringing “ownership” of a digital work of art more in line with ownership of a physical work of art.

Like physical art, the NFT itself can be sold. Because of the record keeping function of the blockchain, some NFTs ensure that artists get a percentage of the sales proceeds every time the ownership changes hands on the secondary market, a feature that is somewhat akin to an artist resale right, or droit de suite, that exists in many European countries and provides that artists receive royalties for their works when they are resold.

On its own, an NFT does not transfer intellectual property rights to the NFT holder. This means without an additional license or transfer of copyrights, the NFT holder does not acquire the rights to make and sell copies of the digital artwork. While this may seem surprising, this is analogous to how ownership works in the physical world: the ownership of a physical object is distinct from the ownership of copyright. The owner of a painting may do whatever she wants with the physical copy—sell it, give it away, etc.—but she does not acquire the copyrights in the painting simply by purchasing the physical copy. Without further authorization, the owner of a copyrighted painting typically cannot, for example, make and sell greeting cards with copies of the painting on them, which would be unauthorized reproductions of the work. In this way, ownership of the NFT is similar to owning a physical copy of any creative work, though the NFT owner simply has the token recording ownership rather than a physical manifestation of the object. 

That said, a digital artist can elect to transfer or license some or all or of her copyrights to the NFT holder. For example, when MetaKoven bought the NFT representing Beeple’s Everydays at auction, he also acquired some rights to display the artwork online. While it is not yet clear what MetaKoven will do with these rights with respect to Everydays, in December he purchased a different collection of digital artworks by Beeple, which he is displaying in a digital museum (where he is also selling fractionalized ownership of the collection). Whether art lovers will find the virtual gallery experience approachable, let alone a satisfactory parallel to the analog world—and whether collectors and investors will continue to find appeal in ownership of NFTs—is yet to be seen. 

Authors of written works wondering what opportunities they might have to take advantage of the NFT craze may look longingly at the recent sale of a New York Times column by Kevin Roose about NFTs that was itself turned into an NFT. Pitched as “the first article in the almost 170-year history of The Times to be distributed as an NFT,” it recently sold for $560,000 in a charity auction. Illustrating the concept that ownership of the NFT does not itself transfer any copyrights, Roose’s article makes clear “the NFT does not include the copyright to the article or any reproduction or syndication rights.” The NFT holder acquires no more rights to copy and share the article than someone who accesses the column through their New York Times digital subscription or who has a copy of the Times delivered each morning.

Unsurprisingly, commentators disagree as to whether the NFT hype is here to stay or will soon die down. In the meantime, NFTs offer a novel way for tech savvy creators to bring attention to and potentially monetize their digital works.

Public Domain Day 2021: Paths to the Public Domain

Posted January 5, 2021
Montage of book and film covers of works entering the public domain
Montage courtesy of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain

Last week, we celebrated a new batch of works from 1925 entering the public domain. In copyright, the public domain is the commons of material that is not protected by copyright. When a work enters the public domain, anyone may do anything they want with the work, including activities that were formerly the “exclusive right” of the copyright holder like making copies of, sharing, and adapting the work. 

Some people mistakenly think that the “public domain” means anything that is publicly available. This is wrong: The public domain has nothing to do with what is readily available for public consumption. Just because a work is freely available on the internet, for example, doesn’t mean the work is in the public domain. Under today’s copyright laws, copyright protection is automatic. This means, for example, that a photographer could take and upload a photograph to a publicly accessible website, and—despite its public availability online—unauthorized uses of the photograph may be infringing, unless the use is otherwise allowed under an exception to copyright. 

Just how do works become a part of the public domain? In this post, we’ll share some of the ways in which works enter the public domain or simply exist as a part of the public domain because of the limits of copyright. 

Copyright Expiration

One way that works become a part of the public domain is the expiration of their copyright protection. Copyright protects works for a limited time and after that, the copyright expires and works fall into the public domain. Under U.S. copyright law, as of 2021, all works first published in the United States in 1925 or earlier are now in the public domain due to copyright expiration. Copyright law has changed over time and the term of copyright is now calculated based on the life of the author. Under today’s copyright laws, works created by an individual author today won’t enter the public domain until 70 years after the author’s death.

It can be devilishly difficult to determine whether a work’s copyright has expired. For example, while works first published in the United States in 1925 or earlier are in the public domain, unpublished works created prior to 1925 may not be. We recommend Peter Hirtle’s Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States and Berkeley Law’s “Is it in the Public Domain?” Handbook to help you evaluate a work’s copyright status.

Failure to Comply With Formalities

While 2021 brings certainty that works first published in the United States in 1925 are in the public domain, changes in copyright duration and renewal requirements during the 20th century mean that works first published in the United States between 1926 and March 1, 1989 could also be in the public domain because their copyrights were not renewed or because the copyright owner failed to comply with other “formalities” that used to be required for copyright protection. These formalities included requirements that the copyright owner register her work with the Copyright Office and mark the work with a copyright notice upon publication. Analysis from the New York Public Library revealed that approximately 75% of copyrights for books were not renewed between 1923-1964, meaning roughly 480,000 books from this period are most likely in the public domain.

Under today’s copyright laws, authors of new published works are no longer required to comply with any formalities to be eligible for copyright protection, though there are significant benefits to doing so. 

Uncopyrightable Subject Matter

Copyright law is not unlimited. There are certain things that are seen as fundamental building blocks of creativity and authorship and are therefore simply not protected by copyright, entering the public domain automatically. 

An important category of things that are not copyrightable are facts—even if those facts are obscure or were difficult to collect. For instance, suppose that a historian spent several years reviewing field reports and compiling an exact, day-by-day chronology of military actions during the Vietnam War. Even though the historian expended significant time and resources to create this chronology, the facts themselves would be free for anyone to use. That said, the way that the facts are expressed—such as how they are articulated in an article or a book—is copyrightable. The lack of copyright protection for facts is central to copyright law: Even “asserted truths,” or information presented as factual which later turns out to be untrue, are part of the public domain. 

Ideas, themes, and scènes à faire are categories of expression that are also outside of copyright protection. These concepts are closely related, and the overarching justification for excluding them from copyright protection is that they are simply too general and standard to a particular genre or convention for an individual creator to be granted a temporary monopoly on them. Here again, though copying the words used to express the idea or theme could constitute infringement, the similarity of general ideas, themes, or other elements of a work which are standard in the treatment of a given topic cannot form the basis of an infringement claim. For more on ideas, themes, and scènes à faire, check out our post on uncopyrightable subject matter for fiction writers

Other Exclusions

The U.S. Copyright Office provides information about additional types of works and subject matter that do not qualify for copyright protection, including names, titles, and short phrases; typeface, fonts, and lettering; blank forms; and familiar symbols and designs. It is worth noting that other areas of intellectual property, such as patent or trademark law, could provide protection for categories that are not eligible for copyright protection. 

The Copyright Act provides that works created by the United States federal government are never eligible for copyright protection, though this rule does not apply to works created by U.S. state governments or foreign governments. And under the government edicts doctrine, judicial opinions, administrative rulings, legislative enactments, public ordinances, and similar official legal documents are not copyrightable for reasons of public policy. 

The U.S. Copyright Office also reminds potential registrants that works that “lack human authorship” are uncopyrightable, using as an example “a photograph taken by a monkey.” Sound familiar? 

Abandonment / No Rights Reserved  

In theory, a copyright owner can voluntarily abandon her copyright prior to the expiration of the work’s copyright term by engaging in an overt act reflecting the intent to relinquish her rights. Abandoned works then become part of the public domain, free from copyright and available for anyone to use. 

Creative Commons offers a “No Rights Reserved” tool for copyright owners who wish to waive copyright interests in their works and thereby place them as completely as possible in the public domain. And recently, satirist Tom Lehrer added a statement to his website granting permission to the public to download and reuse his lyrics, noting that they “should be treated as though they were in the public domain.” That said, a scholarly article by Dave Fagundes and Aaron Perzanowski criticizes the current state of the law surrounding copyright abandonment. The authors assert that the lack of a clear, reliable way to abandon copyright frustrates authors who wish to abandon their copyrights, and the practical effectiveness of abandonment is undermined by the lack of a broadly accessible record of abandoned works.

What if Bill Bryson or Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote a book about copyright?

Posted December 7, 2020

by Paul J. Heald

Such a literary effort might look like Copy this Book: What Data Tells Us about Copyright and the Public Good (Stanford University Press: November 2020).

One of my favorite books is Bill Bryson’s A History of Nearly Everything in which he explains archaeology, chemistry, physics, genetics, botany, zoology, and biology as they’ve evolved over the centuries. I learned more about science from Bryson than I learned in high school and college combined. Moreover, I spent much of my reading time stifling my laughter as he digresses into zany anecdotes about pioneering scientists and their distant relatives.

Neil deGrasse Tyson displays much the same lighthearted, yet illuminating, flair, in a book like Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.

Surely, one might shine the same sort of light on copyright law and policy. And, let’s face it, copyright’s reputation needs a little tarting up. After all, the first sentence of the Wikipedia page on Basic Copyright Issues is “Copyright is complicated.” If that describes basic issues, how can one make author’s reversion rights or music copyright infringement digestible?

Challenge accepted!

The key to both copyright fun and enlightenment might be the treasure trove of data that I and others have collected over that last ten years. Numbers have a reputation of making things worse, but in the case of copyright, diving into the empirical evidence makes sense out of copyright law/policy and provides a platform for some fascinating illustrative anecdotes.

For example, many of you might remember a copy of James Gould Cozzens’ By Love Possessed (1957) sitting on your parents bookshelf. It was a New York Times #1 bestseller (knocking the then bestselling novel of all time, Peyton Place off the top spot) and in 1960 won the William Dean Howells medal for the best work of fiction over the prior five years.

Now, try to find a new copy of By Love Possessed on Amazon.com or Barnes and Nobles, or any of Cozzens’ books, including the Pulitzer Prize winner Guard of Honor (1949). You won’t. No Kindle versions; no new bound copies. I solve this mystery by performing a fascinating data mining exercise on Amazon.com with a quick sideswipe at the atrocious movie made from the book.

Authors’ reversion rights, a frequent topic here at the Authors Alliance, also has a reputation for eye-crossing complexity, but Copy this Book! reports data from an extensive study of bestselling (and not-so-bestselling) fiction and non-fiction to show precisely how authors “get their groove back.” And who would have thought that challenge brought by the estate of an obscure South African to Disney’s use of The Lion Sleeps Tonight in The Lion King would hold the key?

In addition to explaining how copyright keeps books disappeared and how authors exploit their reversion rights, Copy this Book! tells the data driven stories of orphan photographs; frustrated musicians; porn video and music parodies; false claims of copyright (“copyfraud”); music and movie piracy; and gray market goods. The book concludes with an insider’s view to the biggest copyright legal disaster of the century, Supreme Court case of Eldred v. Ashcroft (2003)—a view that reveals the fascinating constitutional connection between copyright and the right to bear arms.

I am a clear beneficiary of copyright protection—my most recent novel, Raggedyland (Clarkeston Chronicles 3) (July, 2020) is proof of that—nonetheless, Copy this Book! tells an unflinching yet lighthearted, data-driven story of how too much copyright reduces public welfare.

We thank Paul J. Heald for this guest post. Heald is the Richard W. and Marie L. Corman Professor of Law at the University of Illinois. He is also a fellow and associated researcher at CREATe, the RCUK Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy, based at the University of Glasgow.

Shaping Your Publication Contract to Meet Your Goals: Part 2

Posted September 1, 2020
Shelf with colorful books and Authors Alliance logo on blue background

Book publication contracts deserve careful attention because their terms control the rights and obligations of authors and publishers for the life of the relationship between the parties, which can potentially last for decades. Our guide to Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts helps authors to understand common clauses in publication contracts, recognize how the terms might affect their goals for their books, and negotiate for author-friendly variations of those terms.

In this two-part series, we apply the lessons from our guide to real-life contract terms and illustrate how authors can consider the implications of contract terms and formulate author-friendly variations that advance their interests. This second post covers options, non-competes, the look and feel of a work, and assignment of the agreement. To read the first post addressing grant of rights clauses, subsidiary rights, and rights reversion, click here.

Future Works: Options

Sample Term: “Author agrees that it will offer Publisher the first right to publish Author’s next work […] on the same terms and conditions as those contained herein […].”

Why it could be problematic: The term above could be problematic because it doesn’t give the author the opportunity to decline the publisher’s offer, purporting to lock the author into working with the publisher on his next book. It also could be problematic because it says that the second book’s contract will have the same terms as the first book’s contract. This could be bad for an author whose first book is wildly successful and who may attract an offer of higher royalties for the second book, but must accept the royalty rates agreed upon in the contract for the first book. (Of course, the opposite could be true: the performance of an author’s first book could mean that the terms offered for a second deal may be lower than those offered for the original deal: But this clause doesn’t help with that situation, either, as it gives the publisher the right but not the obligation to publish the author’s next work.)

How to make it better: Options clauses can be softened in a number of ways. For example, authors can limit the definition of the “next work” for which the publisher’s option applies to something closely related to the original work (such as the next book in a series), and authors can even include a right to refuse the publisher’s offer. For more information on options clauses, see pages 131-134 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.

Future Works: Non-Competes

Sample Term: “The Author agrees that during the term of this Agreement the Author will not, without the Publisher’s prior written consent, participate in the preparation or publication of, or otherwise be interested in or connected with matter that may, in the Publisher’s judgment, conflict or compete with the sale of the Work.”

Why it could be problematic: “Non-compete” clauses can be problematic because they can prevent the author from publishing any books that are of a similar character, ignoring that some authors may write exclusively on a niche topic, for example, because it’s their area of study as a scholar. This term is especially concerning because it explicitly leaves the decision of whether another book by an author will compete with the contracted book at the complete discretion of the publisher.

How to make it better: Ideally, an author will avoid agreeing to a non-compete clause in their contract at all. But publishers may feel strongly about protecting their investment in publishing the author’s book, and don’t want sales to be undermined by competing books. This term could be made better by instead using the phrase, “may reasonably be expected to interfere with the sale of the work” instead of being at the publisher’s sole discretion. And as the term of the agreement can be for a very long time, another improvement is to put a time limit for how long the author must refrain from publishing competing works, such as for one year after the contracted book’s publication. For more information on non-compete clauses, see pages 137-141 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.

Look and Feel

Sample Term: “The [Publisher] shall have entire control of such production and publication in all forms and media. The paper, printing, binding, title, design, jacket and/or cover […] shall be in the [Publisher’s] sole discretion.”

Why it could be problematic: Typically, authors hand over the manuscript to the publisher and the publisher takes care of the “business” end of actually producing, distributing, and helping with the marketing of the book. However, some authors may want to have at least some input over the “look and feel” of their book. The term above gives total control to the publisher, regardless of how the author may feel about the publisher’s decisions.

How to make it better: If an author is concerned about having no say whatsoever in the look and feel of her book, she can negotiate for the publisher to agree to at least consult with her to get her opinions, or even get a right of approval about things like the design, jacket, and cover of her book. For example, if the publisher presents a book cover that the author loathes, the author can express that opinion and maybe veto the cover. That said, it is important for authors to remember that a publishers’ business is to sell books, and that publishers rely on their extensive experience in how to best accomplish that goal. To learn more about negotiation options for the look and feel of a book, review pages 153-57 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.

Assignment of Agreement

Sample Term: “The Publisher shall have the right, without approval of the Author, to assign this Agreement.”

Why it could be problematic: Assignment is when a party to the contract (here, the publisher) gives all of their rights and obligations in the contract to someone else. Typically, publication contracts restrict an author’s ability to assign a contract without the publisher’s permission. This is unsurprising—after all, authors are individual people with particular skills, styles, and ideas, and the publisher contracted to work with that specific author. The potential problem with the term above is that the publisher can assign the contract without the author’s approval, meaning that the author has no influence whatsoever on who a future publisher may be. If the author chose the publisher because it’s prestigious, for example, but the publisher wants to assign the contract to a less prestigious publishing house, then the author will probably want to veto the transfer. But the contract says the publisher can assign the agreement no matter how the author feels.

How to make the term better: Ideally, the term will say that the publisher cannot assign the agreement without the consent of the author, though it is likely that the publisher will insist that consent cannot be unreasonably withheld. But this still gives the author the opportunity to consider the deal and the ability to reject the assignment for valid reasons, and balances control because the author must have a reasonable justification for vetoing an assignment. To learn more, check out pages 244-49 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.

* * *

The examples of covered in this series are just that—examples. Every contract looks a little different, depending on the kind of publisher and the kind of book. While this two-part series on book publication contracts has covered some of the most common terms used in contracts, there are many more that may appear, such as outlining royalty rates or marketing terms. For a deeper dive into contract terms and options for negotiation, be sure to check out Authors Alliance’s guide to Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.

Authors Alliance is grateful to Diana Buck, Copyright Intern, for researching and drafting this post.

Shaping Your Publication Contract to Meet Your Goals: Part 1

Posted August 18, 2020
Shelf with colorful books and Authors Alliance logo on blue background

Book publication contracts deserve careful attention because their terms control the rights and obligations of authors and publishers for the life of the relationship between the parties, which can potentially last for decades. Our guide to Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts helps authors to understand common clauses in publication contracts, recognize how the terms might affect their goals for their books, and negotiate for author-friendly variations of those terms.

In this two-part blog series, we apply the lessons from our guide to real-life contract terms and illustrate how authors can consider the implications of contract terms and formulate author-friendly variations that advance their interests. The first post addresses grant of rights clauses, subsidiary rights, and rights reversion. The second post will cover options, non-competes, the look and feel of a work, and assignment of the agreement.

Grant of Rights

Sample Term: “The Author hereby assigns to the Publisher the copyright and all the exclusive rights comprised in the copyright in the Work and all revisions thereof […] during the full term of copyright […] with exclusive authority to dispose of said rights in all countries and in all languages […].”

Why it could be problematic: When an author writes something original and fixes it in a tangible medium, she typically automatically has copyright ownership in the work. Authors should think long and hard about transferring copyright ownership for the life of copyright as they may come to regret this if, for example, their work falls out of print or the rights are not being actively used. The sample “grant of rights” term above hands total ownership and control of the copyright to the publisher, to be exploited by the publisher at its sole discretion for the life of copyright (which currently lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years). Essentially, unless the author regains her rights (more on rights reversion below), the author will not have a say in whether and how the work is made available and used.

How to make it better: Many authors prefer not to turn over ownership of the copyright to the publisher at all. Instead, the author may try to negotiate for a limited term grant, or to give the publisher a nonexclusive license. A nonexclusive license means that the author grants the publisher the ability to do certain activities (such as make copies of the book and distribute them), but the author will still have the ability to allow other publishers to do the same through similar nonexclusive licenses, or even to do those activities on her own. Even if a publisher does not agree to a limited term grant or a nonexclusive license, authors have many options to negotiate to make the grant of rights more nuanced, such as by limiting the geographic scope, including “use it or lose it” clauses, and requesting revert-back clauses. The grant of rights clause can be modified in myriad ways; to learn more, take a look at pages 44-73 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.

Subsidiary Rights

Sample Term: “The Author grants to the Publisher full and exclusive right to act as his or her agent in disposing of the following rights and licenses: reprint, in full or in part; book club; serialization; dramatic, operatic, and musical adaptation; radio and television broadcasting; mechanical or electronic reproduction; microfilming and similar techniques; filmstrip production; motion picture and allied rights; and adaptations for commercial use.”

Why it could be problematic: Subsidiary rights are rights that arise from your copyright being used in specific contexts, such as for a movie adaptation or in audiobook form. The term above is especially problematic when you put it in context: This particular clause was found in a contract for a textbook. Is a textbook publisher realistically going to make or license an opera based on an author’s textbook? Authors should be skeptical of contracts that ask for subsidiary rights that the publisher really doesn’t need and is unlikely to exploit.

How to make it better: There’s no one clear way to make a subsidiary rights clause better. Instead, an author should consider and discuss with the publisher what subsidiary rights they each hope to realistically exploit. For example, if a publisher has no ties to the movie industry, but the author or his agent does, then the author could advocate to retain the rights to audiovisual works because the author can actually pursue the goal of getting a movie made. Authors can also limit the duration of these rights, ask for a license-back, or insert “use it lose it” provisions. To learn more about subsidiary rights, review pages 76-94 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.

Rights Reversion

Sample Term 1: “If the Work (and all conversions, adaptations, ancillaries, derivations and portions thereof) has been declared out of print by the Publisher in the United States, the Publisher may, but shall not be obligated to, offer to reversion rights to the Work to the Author.”

Sample Term 2: “In case Publisher fails to keep the work in print (and for all purposes of this paragraph a Work shall be considered to be in print if it is on sale by Publisher in any edition in any venue, storefront or online, paper or digital […] then this Agreement shall terminate with respect to the Work and all of the rights granted to Publisher with respect to the Work shall revert to Author.”

Why it could be problematic: Reversion rights are important because they give an author the ability to regain control of her book from the publisher if certain conditions are met, such as sales or revenue dropping below a certain threshold or if the book falls out of print. One reason Term 1 is problematic because it leaves the decision of whether to return rights to the author in the sole discretion of the publisher: Even if the book is out of print, the author cannot trigger rights reversion unless the publisher agrees. Term 2 is problematic because the availability of digital versions counts as keeping a book “in print,” it’s possible that the book will never be declared “out of print” if the publisher makes an electronic copy available, even if it hasn’t been selling any copies.

How to make it better: Reversion rights should not be left entirely to the publisher’s discretion; instead, it is better for clauses to include a clear trigger for an author’s right to revert, such as a definition of “out of print” that is tied to concrete terms, like a minimum number of sales or revenue in a specified period. Additionally, it is preferable to eliminate the mere availability of electronic copies as sufficient for a book to be “in print;” again, it is better to link the definition of “in print” to a sales or revenue threshold, for example, rather than the mere availability in any form. To learn more about rights reversion clauses, read pages 231-43 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.

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The examples of covered in this series are just that—examples. Every contract looks a little different, depending on the kind of publisher and the kind of book. Contracts will inevitably have many more clauses that aren’t covered in this series, such as outlining royalty rates or marketing terms. For a deeper dive into contract terms and options for negotiation, be sure to check out Authors Alliance’s guide to Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.

Authors Alliance is grateful to Diana Buck, Copyright Intern, for researching and drafting this post.

Fagundes & Perzanowski on Abandoning Copyright

Posted May 19, 2020
Photo by Ben Cliff on Unsplash

Authors Alliance is grateful to Nicolas Charest, Copyright Research Assistant, for providing this review of an academic article proposing a legal framework to facilitate copyright abandonment.

In a new article, Abandoning Copyright, Dave Fagundes, Professor of Law at the University of Houston, and Aaron Perzanowski, Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University, review the doctrine of copyright abandonment and suggest reforms to facilitate copyright abandonment and promote a richer public domain.

Copyright abandonment refers to the voluntary and permanent relinquishment of an owner’s rights in a copyrighted work prior to the expiration of the work’s copyright term. In general, an author abandons her copyright by forming an intent to relinquish her rights and engaging in an overt act reflecting that intent. Abandoned works become part of the public domain, free from copyright and available for anyone to use. Fagundes and Perzanowski propose that copyright law should facilitate the legal and administrative process of abandonment, suggesting that doing so would realign copyright law with the constitutional intent of incentivizing creation to enrich the public.

The authors acknowledge that abandoning copyrights prevents an author from extracting the economic value of a work that is derived from exploiting exclusive rights. In addition, an author who abandons copyright also gives up the ability to prevent uses to which they would object. However, the public welfare is greatly benefited as the work becomes freely available for anyone to access and use. As such, abandonment can encourage new creative production by making more “raw material” available for other creators to use in their own works, whether it be original creation or derivative works (the authors point to examples of multiple movie adaptations based on literary works in the public domain, such as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur, and Robin Hood).

Fagundes and Perzanowski criticize the current state of the law surrounding copyright abandonment: The lack of a clear, reliable way to abandon copyright frustrates authors who wish to abandon their copyrights, and the practical effectiveness of abandonment is undermined by the lack of a broadly accessible record of abandoned works. The Copyright Act of 1976 contains no explicit provision on how an author may opt out of copyright law’s grant of economic rights. They also highlight that although the U.S. Copyright Office records notices of abandonment, it does not indicate whether such recordation is legally effective in actually abandoning the copyrights. Finally, they point out that the doctrine of abandonment is ill-defined and courts are inconsistent in their rulings, often mixing abandonment with other doctrines such as forfeiture or waiver. They ultimately conclude that these shortcomings might discourage authors who would otherwise be inclined to abandon their works because the practice appears inaccessible.

In light of the above, Fagundes and Perzanowski propose the following:

  • Courts should clarify the standard for copyright abandonment and distinguish abandonment from other related doctrines.
  • Courts should favor clear written and oral statements of intent to abandon and narrowly interpret all other forms of evidence of intent, especially those based on the physical disposition of copies of a work.
  • Congress should amend the Copyright Act to specifically provide for the power to abandon copyrights and dedicate works to the public domain and to define a standard and associated mechanism for abandonment.
  • Congress could empower the Copyright Office to define a standard for abandonment and develop administrative mechanisms for evaluating, recording, and publicizing notices of abandonment. This filing process should be free.
  • The law should clarify the public domain status of works subject to private dedication instruments like Creative Commons’ CC0 license, and a complete and authoritative registry should be developed to search for abandoned works.

Fagundes and Perzanowski also consider strategies to bend the incentives of copyright owners towards abandonment.

The full text of the article can be found here.

New Empirical Study of Australian Publishing Agreements: A Case for Statutory Reversion Rights for Authors

Posted March 11, 2020
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Authors Alliance is grateful to Nicolas Charest, Copyright Research Assistant, for contributing this post.

New findings based on empirical research by Joshua Yuvaraj and Rebecca Giblin highlight serious deficiencies in publication contracts, especially with respect to provisions for returning rights to authors. In Are contracts enough? An empirical study of author rights in Australian publishing agreements, Yuvaraj and Giblin analyze 145 book publication contracts from the archive of the Australian Society of Authors and conclude that the contracts are generally not sufficient to protect authors’ interests in the long-term availability of their works. Given this, the authors propose introducing baseline minimum protections to improve author incomes, investment opportunities for publishers, and access for the public.

The United States and many other countries give authors statutory rights to terminate transfers of copyright (often called “reversionary” or “termination of transfer” laws). Among other benefits, these rights give creators the ability to give new life to works that have outlived their commercial lives but are nonetheless historically and culturally valuable. By getting rights back, authors can seek alternative distribution outlets, whether it be publication on new platforms, translation and distribution of works in new languages and in new territories, adaptation into movie scripts, or releasing works under a public license. Beyond statutory termination provisions, authors may also be able to regain rights through provisions in their publication contracts.

Since Australia does not give authors a statutory right to regain their copyrights from their publishers, Yuvaraj and Giblin’s new paper explores whether the provisions in the contracts they reviewed were adequate to protect the interest of authors to regain unexploited rights. Yuvaraj and Giblin conclude that provisions were generally deficient. Their observations include:

  • The Rights Assigned or Licensed to Publishers are Extremely Broad: Authors typically hand over overwhelmingly broad and long-lasting rights, with 83% of agreements covering the right to print, publish, and/or license the work for at least the entire copyright term, and 19% of those specifically include any future extensions of that copyright term. Most of these licences or transfers also secured the publisher’s rights over any and all territories, and almost half included rights in all languages.

  • “Out-of-Print” Clauses are Rarely Based on Objective Criteria: While 87% of the contracts examined had some form of out-of-print reversion clause, most relied on a “technical availability” standard to determine whether a rights in a work are eligible for reversion to the author. Only 7% of out-of-print clauses were based on objective criteria like the number of copies sold. A further 5% left the determination of out-of-print status entirely to the publisher’s discretion.

  • Authors Face Long Waits Before They Can Reclaim Rights: When reversion rights are provided in the agreements, Yuvaraj and Giblin observe that there are often built in delays before the author can revert rights. In the contracts analyzed by the authors, delays include: a period after initial publication (ranging from 1-7 years), a period after the book goes out of print (ranging from 6 months to 3 years), and a period of notice to the publisher to reprint the book (from 2 months to 2 years).

  • “Use it or Lose it” Clauses are Rare and Some Contracts Fail to Provide for Reversion in the Event of Liquidation: Just 6% of the contracts provided for the return of unexploited language and territory rights (“use it or lose it” clauses). A full 30% of the contracts failed to provide for reversion of rights to authors in the event of a publisher going out of business.

Yuvaraj and Giblin argue that in light of these findings, contracts cannot be relied on as the only way to protect authors rights and recommend that minimum reversion rights for authors should be include in copyright statutes. They suggest that lawmakers explore possible avenues for introducing new minimum reversion rights for authors, including 1) rights to revert where a book is no longer being meaningfully exploited; 2) use-it-or-lose-it rights; 3) a right to revert when the publisher enters liquidation; 4) reversion for failure to pay royalties or provide reasonably transparent royalty statements; and 5) reversion after a certain period of time.

Click here to access the full paper.

Reference: Yuvaraj, Joshua and Giblin, Rebecca, Are contracts enough? An empirical study of author rights in Australian publishing agreements (Nov. 19, 2019). Melbourne University Law Review, Vol. 44, No. 1, 2020.

Copyright Registration and Recordation 101

Posted February 11, 2020
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

If you have questions about copyright registration, you’re not alone! Authors often ask us why they should register copyright in their works and when and how to do so. Read on for a primer on the benefits of copyright registration, how to register your copyright, and situations where you may want to update or supplement the Copyright Office’s record of your work.

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Copyright registration is a claim to copyright filed with the Copyright Office which creates a public record of facts about a copyrighted work, including authorship and ownership information. Although authors do not need to register their works in order to enjoy the protection of copyright law (under today’s copyright laws, copyright protection for original, creative works is automatic), timely registration has several benefits which make it an advantageous practice. For example, registration establishes a public record of ownership, registration is necessary before initiating an infringement suit, and registration within three months of publication (or prior to infringement of the work) opens up the possibility of statutory damages and attorneys’ fees. Read more about why registration is an advantageous practice for authors in our post Why Register Your Copyright?

Copyright registration includes three essential elements: a completed application form, a filing fee, and a “deposit” (a copy of the work submitted to the Copyright Office). To learn about how to register your works with the U.S. Copyright Office, read our post How to Register Your Copyright.

While copyright owners no longer need to renew registration under U.S. copyright law, there are several situations in which updating or supplementing the Copyright Office’s record of your work is beneficial (or, in the case of termination of transfer, required). Learn more about filing a supplementary registration, registering derivative works, recording transfers or copyright ownership and other documents pertaining to copyright, and recording terminations of transfers in our post on When to Update or Supplement a Copyright Registration.

It is worth noting that as a part of the its modernization plans, the Copyright Office has announced a forthcoming pilot program through which participants will be able to electronically submit for recordation most types of transfers of copyright ownership and other documents pertaining to a copyright. (Notices of termination will not be part of the pilot program when initially launched.) We applaud the Office’s modernization efforts and will provide updates as the program develops.