13 Copyright Terms Every Freelance Writer Needs to Know

Please don’t sign that freelancing contract before you learn the definitions of these copyright terms

Contracts are an important part of any freelance writing business. I can already hear you groaning now. “Ugh… I’m not a lawyer and I don’t have enough money to hire one!” That’s okay. I’ll help you out.

Don’t treat “contracts” like a dirty word. Perceive them as a way to improve communication with your clients. The goal is to prevent misunderstandings, confirm the work involved, and protect your rights.

Unfortunately, contracts contain a lot of confusing terms that might cause you to scratch your head. Instead of confirming what all this crazy stuff means, a lot of freelancers make the mistake of signing the dotted line (without having a clue what they agreed to).

The worst part? You might not get fairly credited or compensated for your work. This is a huge deal, because there’s absolutely no legal recourse. If you tried to sue, you’d get laughed out of the court room (“You did read the contract, right?” said the judge with a snarky tone).

Copyright is an especially tricky area. The terms and conditions are quite complex. Every freelance writer should have a basic understanding of how copyright law works. Here are thirteen essential terms you need to know before you sign a contract. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

1. Fair Use

“Fair use” gives other people the freedom to use a copyrighted work without asking for permission. This isn’t a free-for-all. The world can’t copy/paste your brilliant article and claim it was their idea.

“Fair use” only applies when the material is transformed in some way. For example, a news reporter could use a small quote from your article about dog training to emphasize a point in their own segment. Criticism, commentary, and parody are the three most common ways “fair use” is applied.

2. Public Domain

This term is a no-brainer. The work is available for the public to use for any reason without permission.

3. Permission

Would you let someone drive your car without permission? No! That’s called “grand theft auto.”

The same fact can be applied to copyrighted work. No one can use it without the owner’s permission. But what kind of permission? That’s the million dollar question.

If someone asks for permission to use your work (and you agree), you need to work out the specifics. Are they free to use the material once or indefinitely? Can they alter the content or not?

4. License

You need a license to drive (unless you want to get slapped with a huge fine).

Clients need a license to use your work (otherwise, how will the content ever benefit them?).

The rights to any work of art belong to its creator. Clients need to be granted rights to use the work, because that’s why they bought it.

5. Exclusive/Non-Exclusive

This is a pretty simple concept. If you provide your clients with an exclusive license, that means they can only use the material in one specific way.

Don’t get too excited, because this limits the ways you can use the work, too. The material cannot be published on other websites without getting permission from your client.

Many magazines and websites only accept exclusive content. That makes sense. They want to provide their readers with original content that can’t be seen anywhere else. It adds value to their audience.

Non-exclusive licenses are the polar opposite. The same exact work can be offered to other clients or recycled for your own purposes. Exclusivity doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” deal. For example, you could offer “exclusive” rights for three months. At that point, you’d be free to publish it elsewhere.

6. Sublicensable

Try to say “sublicensable” three times fast. This term is a mouthful! Luckily, it’s not too complicated.

Sublicensable material can be transferred to others, while your client uses it. In other words, the content may be republished by other companies without risk of infringement.

This does have a down-side. If you offer a sublicensable license to one website you’re proud to be on, the same work could appear on a website you hate. Unlikely? Perhaps. Possible? Definitely!

7. Transferable

This concept works exactly the same as the previous term, with one distinct difference. In this case, only one client can have a license to use your work at the same time.

If you provide an article to Forbes with a transferable license and they transfer the license to Business Week, only one place has the rights to use your work: Business Week. No one else can use it.

8. Derivative Works

The definition of derivative is “something that is based on another source.” With that knowledge, I bet you can guess what this term means…

You’re giving your client the right to create new works just like the one you already provided. They could turn your article into a video, checklist, e-book, or infographic.

9. Moral Rights/Attribution Rights

“Attribution rights” describes your right to be attributed (or credited) for the work you produced.

If you give away your attribution rights, that means your name probably won’t appear on the byline. This is especially common for ghost-writers, who produce content that appears under a different name.

“Moral rights” describe the same concept with a slight twist. If your work is used for purposes that you find offensive, you may ask for your name to be removed. This is a good way to guard your reputation.

10. Copyright Transfer

Don’t agree to this term unless you’re sure it’s a good move. If a client asks you to transfer copyright and you sign the contract, you won’t have any rights to the work.

The work can be licensed to others without your permission. Most copyright transfers will ask you to give up your moral rights. If you agree, you’ll have no “say so” in how or where the work is used.

11. Work-For-Hire

Work-for-hire contracts are a bad deal when you want to own the rights to your work. In fact, the rights won’t ever belong to you. The rights belong to the company or client who purchased it.

This applies to employees and freelancers. If you create content for a company, they own the copyright. If you create content for a client, they own the copyright. You have no recourse or rights whatsoever.

12. Trademark

Trademarks are like a company’s secret sauce. For McDonald’s, it’s the golden arches. For Nike, it’s the “swoosh” symbol. They are a word, name, or symbol that differentiates a product from others like it.

This isn’t a big deal for freelance writers unless they plan on building a brand around their name. In that case, it’s smart to buy the trademark. That will prevent others from selling t-shirts or coffee mugs with your name plastered on them. Now you can reap the benefits from that income stream!

13. Copyright Notice

If you read books, you’ve probably noticed the © symbol at some point. This signifies the work belongs to the author. It doesn’t hurt to slap a © in your website footer and portfolio. To make it more official, add your name and the current year.

In Conclusion

I know copyright law can be confusing. Getting familiar with these terms will help you feel confident the next time you sign a contract. You’ll also prevent misunderstandings with your clients.

Any contract involves giving away some of your rights. There’s no way to escape the necessity of it. Clients can’t use your work without a license to do so. But it’s important to feel comfortable about this exchange.

If a contract is potentially lucrative – and over your head – ask a lawyer to give it a look. It’s better to know there’s a problem before you sign the contract. Otherwise, you won’t be able to seek legal recourse (and you’ll regret it later).

Share this article with your freelancer friends, because they need to know the meaning of these copyright terms, too. :)


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