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From the Periodical Writers' Association of Canada

Why Writers Need Copyright


Whether you write for traditional print publications or new electronic media, understanding copyright is vital. Your copyright is the only reason you are paid for your work. A good understanding of how it works will help you earn more money or explain why you aren't earning enough.

That's why the Periodical Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) offers a kit describing the basic facts about copyright. We also provide a few tips on protecting your rights, valuable sample letters of intent and a standard freelance publication agreement.

PWAC's complete copyright kit is available free of charge from PWAC (contact information below), but the following glimpse at the basics will get you on your way to understanding copyright better.


Copyright gives you the right to determine how others use your writing and for how much. The best way to derive the most benefit from copyright is to license one individual work to many non-competing publishers. While there is only one copyright in any given work, that copyright may be divided into many different rights. When you license your work to any publisher, a contract or letter of agreement is used to spell out the details.

If you want to make the most of your copyright, resist selling all copyright to your work. Even when you wish to license many rights at the same time, resist lumping them together in a blanket contract. Negotiate each right independently to ensure that your clients pay individually for each one.

Print Rights

Print rights once covered all publications that existed. Even then, before the age of electronic rights, there were beneficial ways of carving up your copyright to increase your earnings. Many of these methods still apply. Copyright can be divided into two basic types: sequential and geographic.

Sequential rights include first and second rights. A "first right" means that your client is licencing the right to publish a story first. A "second right" covers any publication after the first time.

Geographic copyrights limit the publication of a work to a specific area and usually only apply to a "first right." Geographic rights can expand as far as "galactic rights" or be specific to an individual city. Usually, a geographic right limits publication to a continent or within a country. For example, "first Canadian rights," "first US rights" and "first European rights."

It was once common to license serial rights, but this practice should now be avoided. A serial right traditionally covered the right to publish in a periodical or "serial" publication, but the word "serial" has come under legal scrutiny with the advent of electronic publishing. Some publishers argue that serial rights expand beyond print publication and include electronic database or World Wide Web rights. This question is currently before the courts. To avoid possible confusion, it is better to specify "print rights only," if you intend to limit the licence to print publication only.

In some instances, particularly when assigning second rights, it is better to use language that avoids questions of geography and first or second rights. In this case, you could simply license "one-time print rights". This licence grants the publisher the right to use your work once, only in print. This way, you can sell the same article to a number of newspapers simultaneously or perhaps sell second rights without explaining where the work has previously appeared. Be aware that it is unethical to license rights to the same story to publications who compete for the same readers.

Electronic Rights

Many magazines and newspapers publish electronic versions of their publications via the Internet or CD-ROM. Publishers also sell or sub-license their content to a variety of commercial databases.

Writers deserve to earn a fair return for their work, no matter how it is used. Publishers often complain that they're making no money from electronic publishing. Even though this assertion is highly debatable, it has no bearing on their agreement with you. These same publishers pay for the computer, Web designers, Internet space, CD-ROM production and even for the janitor who mops up around the server without complaining. Writers should not have to subsidize publishers or their business experiments.

When publishers approach you about electronic rights, avoid blanket all-rights clauses that effectively give them a carte blanche. Be specific. If you are licencing Web rights, identify the specific Web sites where your work may appear, otherwise it can be used anywhere on the Internet. Identify which databases you agree to license. Finally, put a time limit on the licence. Consider licensing the work for the shelf life of a periodical - three months for a quarterly, for example. A one-year licence is also common.


Negotiating an agreement that is clearly understood by you and your client is key to protecting your rights.

ALWAYS send a letter of intent to the client outlining all of the salient points of your agreement. This way, any discrepancies between your understanding and your clients' understanding can be discussed and straightened out before work on a project begins.

Whenever possible, use PWAC's "Standard Freelance Publication Agreement." It ensures that the points you need to clarify are fully documented.

Large companies often issue purchase orders. In that case, specify the terms of agreement on the purchase order.

Always include the standard terms of copyright on your invoices and ensure that clients receive invoices before you receive payment for your work and prior to publication. Preferably, you should include an invoice with your work when delivering it to the client. If a publisher responds by paying the invoice and publishing the article, then a dispute later arises, you'll be able to argue that the publication agreed to your terms or they wouldn't have published the article.

For PWAC's complete copyright kit, see or contact PWAC's National Office at 54 Wolseley St, Suite 203, Toronto, Ontario, M5T 1A5; phone(416) 504-1645; fax(416) 504-9079; e-mail For further information on PWAC, see

Sources, 489 College Street, Suite 201, Toronto, ON M6G 1L9.
Phone: (416) 964-7799 FAX: (416) 964-8763

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