Copyright Terms Every Freelance Writer Should Know

copyrightRegardless of the capacity you work in as a freelance writer, at some point you’re likely to end up signing a contract—or multiple contracts. While a good contract will protect both you and your clients from any confusion over the rights to the work, the contract itself may cause some confusion.

It’s important for freelance writers to truly understand what they’re signing before they agree to a job. Poorly worded or unfavorable contracts can end up limiting or erasing your rights, or even damaging your reputation down the line.

Here are some common copyright terms that often appear in freelance contracts, and what they’ll mean to you.

License: Who has what rights?

In terms of contracts, license is a very broad term that covers the rights being granted to a work. Copyright is actually a series of rights that automatically belong to the creator of a work, so a license lets clients exercise some—but typically not all—of the rights to the work, for which they’re paying you.

Granting a license means that you’re not giving away all the rights to your work. Your contract should specify which rights you’re surrendering to the client, and which you’ll keep for your own use.

Exclusive vs. non-exclusive: Who else gets the rights?

Exclusivity, or a lack of it, is an important element of a license in a contract. If you grant an exclusive license to a client, it means once you’ve completed the work, only the client can use it in the capacity specified by the license. Neither yourself nor your client can sell exclusively licensed work to someone else, and you need permission from the client to display the work on your own website, such as in your portfolio.

With a non-exclusive license, you are legally permitted to use the work yourself, or to offer the same non-exclusive license for sale to others. Keep in mind, however, that selling a piece you wrote for a specific client to someone else is usually considered poor taste, even if you technically have permission with a non-exclusive license.

Sublicensable: The client can sell the rights

If a work has a sublicensable license, this means the client can resell or re-license the work to others, and still use it themselves. An exclusive license is automatically sublicensable, since the client has sole rights to the work. If it’s non-exclusive and sublicensable, both you and the client can re-license the work.

One thing to note here is that with a sublicensable contract, the client doesn’t need your approval or permission to re-license the work to others—including sites you may not want your work to be associated with.

Transferrable: The client can give away the rights

Similar to sublicensable terms, a transferrable license lets the client give or sell the rights to the work to a third party—with the difference being they will no longer hold the license themselves. The license is transferred rather than shared, and the client has given up all rights to the work.

Once again, with a transferrable license your work could end up owned by a site or party you’d prefer not to be associated with.

Derivative works: The client can change the content

A derivative work is a new work based on an original. In freelance contracts, derivative work rights are usually requested so the client can either edit the work, or modify content to fit in an allotted space.

However, a derivative works clause can also permit the client to create translations, videos, and other modified formats of the work, if there are no restrictions on the right to create derivative work spelled out in the contract.

Attribution / moral rights: The client doesn’t have to credit you

Attribution or authorship rights in the United States deal with your rights as a content creator to be credited and given a byline for your work. Outside the U.S., this type of rights is often called moral rights.

If you are ghostwriting for a client, waiving your attribution or moral rights is often a standard contract clause that allows the client to claim credit for the work. However, if you’re expecting to be credited and receive a byline, make sure this clause doesn’t appear in the contract.

Additionally, moral rights can sometimes include the right to not be attributed if you choose not to be associated with the work, or the right to object to offensive uses. Read the moral rights clause carefully, if one exists, before signing.

Copyright transfer: The client retains all rights

Unlike transferrable licenses, a copyright transfer means that you are giving up any and all rights to the work, and the client will retain sole control and discretion. This can be an acceptable contract term—but only if you’re absolutely sure it’s what you want, and you feel that you’ve been adequately compensated for the work.

Keep in mind that in the U.S., copyright can only be transferred through a written contract, for which any freelance contract would most likely qualify.

Have you run across any unusual contract terms in your freelance writing career?

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