Posting your Work on the Internet: Watch your Rights!

Posting your Work on the Internet: Watch your Rights!

by Nicole Bishop

The internet provides plenty of opportunities to post written work to a web site, to news groups, and to mailing lists or ezines. But there can also be serious drawbacks – the main one being loss of control over who uses and copies that material, coupled with the poor reputation of the web as a medium for publication.

Another drawback concerns the potential loss of rights. E-publishing can compromise the author’s chances of retaining first rights when seeking publication in ‘hard copy’. And, as you will already know if you are an experienced writer, first rights are very valuable – a writer can usually claim more money for first rights than for reprints, and some publishers may be unwilling even to accept work that has already been published in any form.

As a refresher, here’s a basic explanation of ‘first rights’ :

“A writer selling First Serial Rights is selling a newspaper, magazine or periodical the right to publish the story, article or poem for the first time in any periodical. All other rights remain with the author. ” (A Novice Writer’s Guide to Rights, By Claire E. White, a US attorney.)

And here’s a definition of “published” under the United States copyright law:

“‘Publication” is the distribution of copies of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. The offering to distribute copies to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display, constitutes publication.” (Taken from “Electronic Publishing and the Potential Loss of First Serial Rights, 1996 Ivan Hoffman, B.A., J.D. )

It’s fairly easy to see how work posted to a web-site or an ezine could be interpreted as publication, according to the above, especially if the aim of posting is to get the writing in front of as many viewers as possible. This can be an issue whether you post your work on the web, contribute to an ezine, or publish through an “epublisher.”

It is likely, then, that if you post your writing on the web, your work will be considered ‘published’, and that your ability to sell first rights for that writing later will be called into question.


So – you want to get your work known through the internet. But, at the same time you want to retain as many rights as possible. So what do you do? Here are some suggestions, based on my research into what others are doing on the web, and how it is working for them.

Please do not take this as ‘hard and fast’ legal advice – I am no lawyer!

1. The “Full Electronic Publishing” Route

The net offers a great opportunity to get one’s ideas (and name) out there. It may be for you this is the highest priority, and it is this alone which motivates you to publish on the internet. It may also be that you don’t care who copies your material. In fact you may prefer that it is reproduced as many times as possible (so long as the original source is attributed to you, of course!)

As Ivan Hoffman puts the case “As writers, it is our job to write. To fail to exploit our writing over the Net, which appears to be some sort of gift, like manna from heaven, because we are concerned about loss of future but currently unrealized rights, seems a bit foolish… not to use the Net simply because the writer is concerned about an issue that may never arise seems to defeat the entire purpose of what writers are supposed to be doing-writing”.

If you adopt this philosophy yourself, but you also would like to keep open the option of negotiating rights for the same article or book manuscript with hard copy publishers, here is a basic question that you may like to answer for yourself before publishing your work on the internet:

What are the potential effects to the market of the publisher/s I intend approaching?

Despite common assumptions, there may be no negative effect at all on a particular publisher’s market. For instance, there may be absolutely no overlap between the audience that visits the web-site and the potential readership of the hard copy magazine. Or it may be that the internet can actually help, rather than hinder, the marketing of the hard copy version (for instance, by creating a name for the author). These are just a couple of points to keep in mind. I’m sure you can think of many others.

2. The “Teaser” Route

The other option is to offer part of your article or a synopsis of your book as a ‘teaser’ to get hard copy publishers interested, but then to require the prospective publisher to contact you to purchase the full version. This obviously gives you a measure of control over who has access to your work (and hence the reproduction of this work); and nobody can accuse you of compromising their market this way.

This author sells articles for magazines. He presents a summary of the article, its price, its word length -in short, the basic information a prospective publisher needs to know. However, if the publisher wants to obtain the full article, s/he then must contact the author directly via an order form.

An example of this approach applied to sell book manuscripts can be found at:

This is an on-line clearinghouse for authors of both fiction and non-fiction. (It is moderated, as all manuscripts are reviewed prior to posting.) Here the author presents a synopsis of the proposed book on the site, in the form of a brief classified ad, and publishers and literary agents who are interested can then gain access to the full manuscript upon request. They must establish their ‘bona fides’ before being allowed to access the full manuscript, though.

Well, I hope this has at least got you thinking…

Please feel free to email any concerns, suggestions and general comments you may wish to raise. Feedback is always welcome.

Disclaimer: This article is not to be relied upon as a substitute for legal advice. If you have a legal matter involving copyright issues you should consult a lawyer regarding the specific facts of your case.

Nicole Bishop is the publisher of “Writerfind News”, an ezine for professional writers and publishers which focuses on the internet.

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About the author

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