Good Advice Thursday: Authors, Keep your Copyrights!

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour



Most agents and many writers know to strike any clause in a contract that gives away copyright, but not all. Here, from the Author’s Guild (which you might want to join if you’re not already a member) is the straight poop on a terrible practice that seems to be growing.  And ask your university press to cut it out. You can also read it here, on the Author’s Guild website. [Used by permission.]

Authors should not assign their copyrights to publishers. As our Model Contract emphasizes:

“CAUTION: Do not allow the publisher to take your copyright or to publish the copyright notice in any name other than yours. Except in very unusual circumstances, this practice is not standard in the industry and harms your economic interests. No reputable publisher should demand that you allow it to do so.”

Most trade publishers do not ask for an outright assignment of all exclusive rights under copyright; their contracts usually call for copyright to be in the author’s name. But it’s another story in the world of university presses. Most scholarly publishers routinely present their authors with the single most draconian, unfair clause we routinely encounter, taking all the exclusive rights to an author’s work as if the press itself authored the work: “The Author assigns to Publisher all right, title and interests, including all rights under copyright, in and to the work…”

Bad idea. As Cornell University’s Copyright Information Center advises, “When you assign copyright to publishers, you lose control over your scholarly output. Assignment of copyright ownership may limit your ability to incorporate elements into future articles and books or to use your own work in teaching at the University.” And those are by no means the only potential problems. That’s why we admonish authors never to assign a copyright to a publisher or to allow a book’s copyright to be registered in any name but the author’s.

Yet the copyright grab remains endemic among university presses. To find out why, we recently canvassed several academic authors. Every form agreement that a university press had initially offered these authors contained the copyright grab clause. And yet every author we know of who requested to retain copyright was able to get the publisher to change the agreement.

The problem is that most academic authors—particularly first-time authors feeling the flames of “publish or perish”—don’t even ask. They do not have agents, do not seek legal advice, and often don’t understand that publishing contracts can be modified. So they don’t ask to keep their copyrights—or for any changes at all. Many academic authors tell us they were afraid to request changes to the standard agreements for fear that the publisher would pull the plug on their books. One said that when his first book was published in 1976, he never even read the contract and would (and did) sign anything to get published.

So we asked several university press representatives “Why is a clause granting copyright to the publisher the default language in university press agreements?” Here’s what they said (sometimes after consulting with their lawyers):

  •      “We are a non-profit press and we can’t do things that commercial trade presses do.”
  •      “The press is better positioned than the author to defend the copyright by use of premium outside counsel, as well as by use of an anti-piracy service to curb piracy.”
  •      “Having the copyright in the press’s name allows us to work freely to maintain the integrity of the work and maximize its publishing life.”
  •      “We’re close enough to the work to do the best job and we have incentive to protect the publishing mission.”
  •      “It makes it easier for the press because it doesn’t have to ask for an author’s approval when permission uses are granted.”
  •      “It eliminates any confusion as to which party should be contacted regarding re-use and sub-rights, etc. and it simplifies things in regards to piracy as well. Trade authors are more likely to have agents who may retain certain sub-rights and exploit them independent of any publisher relationship.”

Not one of these rationalizations passes the giggle test. While we recognize that most academic presses are non-profits and have narrow margins (the books tend to be scholarly and noncommercial), and many do indeed struggle to make ends meet, we take issue with the notion that taking an author’s copyright is necessary. The fact is that it simply isn’t necessary to own the entire copyright in a book (rather than licensing rights a la carte) to defend the copyright and bring a lawsuit, nor is outright ownership necessary to grant third-party licenses and permissions or to “maintain the integrity of the work and maximize its publishing life,” much less to “protect the publishing mission” (whatever that means). And when pressed, most of the editors we talked to sheepishly admitted that they always gave in when authors asked to retain their copyrights. Indeed, they confessed that they really had no clue why the default was the other way around.

University presses, we ask you to do the right thing: Revise your default boilerplate language so that the author keeps the copyright in his or her book without having to ask. Oppressive copyright grabs are routinely negotiated out of agreements by knowledgeable authors and agents, and there is no credible justification for their existence. It’s time for them to go.

Authors, keep your copyrights. You earned them.


  1. Deb Gould writes:

    I had a IP attorney who was smart enough to strike the clause about copyright being in publisher’s name; other things in contract were questioned, but I let them go. Shouldn’t have – it was a nightmare of a situation for five years! Get an attorney who specializes in intellectual property law before you sign anything. Seriously.

  2. Daren Dean writes:

    One more thing that I’d like to add is that often authors give away their rights when someone asks them personally for permission to use their material in another work. The author has every right to charge something in this case and again this may lead to negotiation. A publisher usually has someone on staff to deal with rights and permissions and they will almost always charge for permissions and take a cut as well. In this case of an estate (after the author has passed away), I’ve notice that they can be very stingy about giving permissions and/or charge huge fees. I hope this helps.

  3. Daren Dean writes:

    When I worked at the University of Missouri Press I prepared contracts for the Editor in Chief (he was also the Acquisitions Editor) and I would add that anything you don’t like about a contract you have every right to mark up the contract and indicate in writing what you want to see changed. It’s a negotiation process and whether you pay someone to peruse the contract or do it yourself it’s still your book. In boiler plate contracts, don’t be surprised if it indicates that you are agreeing to give the publisher the rights to your work but I would say, practically speaking, you should circle that paragraph and indicate in writing that you want it to be in your name. Furthermore, I’d say also look to see if the publisher is selling only North American rights.

    I’d say it’s a bit of a red flag if they want control of all overseas rights. Unless you have an overseas publisher lined up (and/or you’re being published by a big publisher), these rights should be negotiated separately. If you’re published by a small publisher then they may not even have overseers plans. Likewise, movie rights and audiobooks. There’s no point in your publisher using the language of the contract to have these rights, especially if they don’t have a plan to attempt to turn your work into a film or work with an audiobook company, etc. The publisher should not object to these changes in your contract.

    You are also free to negotiate (change the percentage of royalties (percentages on a certain number of copies sold) but if you veer to far from what is stated the publisher may say no. This is part of the negotiation process and not the end of the world. They will tell you if they’re willing to make that change or not. There will be different royalties on hardcover, paperback, electronic or audio editions, etc. Lastly, I would mention that everyone related to you thinks you receive an unlimited of free copies to hand out, which any writer knows is not the case. Publishers are getting more and more stingy with comp copies but it’s another thing to negotiate up front.

    I’d like to add that If you are being published by a University Press they tend to use boiler plate as it states above and you likely do not need an agent. If you do not have a publishing record it may in fact be very difficult to get an agent who works on commission and many University Presses do not even pay an advance. Also, if you get a lawyer (as some do) instead of a literary agent then be sure the lawyer has a background in publishing too.

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks, Daren! The phrase to watch out for in all business dealings is: “This is just standard.”