Writers: How well do you know your digital rights?

How well do you know your digital rights?

I was going to rely on retweeting a couple of articles, but there are a lot of facts and points of contention to share. Writer’s unions are a great source of information about all the rights of authors, but digital rights are still a point of confusion. If you are a writer looking to get published you must get informed about your rights so you can ask the proper questions and be knowledgeable about the pertinent deal points!

Yes, it is an agent’s job to know this information on your behalf, but many writers are pursuing publication alone and there is no excuse to be misinformed when there is a wealth of information out there and lobbyists available to answer questions.


Do you know the difference between assigning and licensing rights? Assignment: the outright transfer of intellectual property from one party to another. Licence: the terms given to the permission, which the owner of an intellectual property right may give to any other person or parties to use that intellectual property.

You can assign rights, but agents always prefer to licence the work for reasons like foreign rights potential and being able to control the intellectual property.

Do you know how long copyright lasts? 70 years after the death of the author in the U.S., 50 years after the death of the author in Canada.

Copyright, at its core, protects the author to reproduce, revise, distribute, and display their own intellectual property.

Digital rights:

As book sales eagerly migrate from print to digital ebooks are no longer a subsidiary right, but a primary right that is a very important part of contract negotiations. Publishers have been firm on 25% ebook royalties (net receipts) but in the UK agents have been negotiating for 30-35% and getting it. Below, the Writer’s Union of Canada argues why ebook royalties should be 50%.

From this National Post article last week:

Author Greg Hollingshead, chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada, answered some questions from the National Post about the bill of rights.

Q: Many writers seem content to leave matters of digital rights to their agents. Why is it important they’re educated?

A: First, in Canada only about 20% of writers have agents. Second, we believe it’s always important for writers to understand what is, or is not, being done in their name. This is a transformative time in the industry, and it seems important to us that writers not allow the other players in the digital arena to decide what is best for them. There needs to be dialogue, and for this writers need to be informed, and as a Union we need to have a clearly stated position, both for our members to consider and discuss and for ourselves to go with to publishers and government.

Q: One of the Writers’ Union’s proposals is that the publisher split proceeds of e-book sales equally with the author. So, are you proposing a royalty rate of 50%? Do you think this is feasible?

A: The traditional 15% of the list price of a hardcover book is derived, approximately, from an understanding that the publisher and author share the net proceeds 50%. (Roughly, if 70% of the cost of books pays for its production, that leaves 30% to be split 50-50 between publisher and author, i.e. 15% of list for the author). This (50%) is the rate Random House began by offering authors for ebooks but then cut back. It seems to us that with minimum production costs and virtually no return costs, ebooks are not as expensive for the publisher to produce as hardcover books, and yet the industry standard remains around 25% of net (not list, notice!). If there is a reason for a rate so low, perhaps publishers could open their books or otherwise explain their position. Our concern is that if publishers stand to make relatively greater profit on ebooks, then that is where their promotional budget will go, and their hardcover print runs will be shorter, in favour of digital availability. The author will then lose doubly, and triply.
The other point I would make is that there is a directional or aspirational aspect to our 50%. Perhaps, if there is something “unfeasible” about it now — something to do, say with start-up costs to publishers (though they never took their original conversion to computers out of authors’ revenues), it is a rate that could be reached within a few years, moving from 35%, to 40%, etc. or after sales of a title reach a certain number (the way hardcover royalty rates can escalate with sales).

Q: Have you shared this Bill of Rights with any publishers? If so, what’s been their reaction?

A: Yes, we have. No response as of this writing.

Q: As you point out, the digital landscape is constantly shifting. What’s to say this document won’t be outdated by next year?

A: I don’t think it will be outdated in a year. I do think that as a result of response from our members and publishers and others, there will be parts of it that may be revised. We wanted to start the conversation by staking out what, first day of fall 2011, seemed to us reasonable digital “rights” for Canadian writers. One has got to start somewhere!

Q: You’ve issued this bill of rights – what now?

A: It’s the conversation with our members and the publishers that’s next. But part of the larger picture is copyright, and so concurrently and in the months to come our concern is to get the broadened exceptions to copyright (which are likely to come back this fall in the copyright bill that will replace C-32) defined and clarified, to avoid runaway illicit copying or endless litigation.

Greg’s information is a great start. For more resources:

Canadian copyright information

U.S. copyright information

(Image via Amazon.com)

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