Did you sign away your rights without really understanding what you were doing? Well, a little-known copyright law allows authors to eventually get back their rights. This mean that authors who had the misfortune to sign a contract with an unscrupulous or small publisher, and who did not include a return of rights, have some recourse besides paying big bucks to get back what should been returned to them as a matter of course. Authors can retake the rights to their books thirty-five years after their book was published. This is for all authors who signed contracts since 1978. But some authors need to act NOW because there are time constraints and stipulations.
How It Works
Authors have a five-year window to exercise the right but must provide notice to the publisher at least 2 years in advance but no more than 10 years before their eligibility date. Authors who published in 1978 were eligible to reclaim their rights in 2013, but they had only until 2018 to act, so the window of opportunity is now closed. But those who published later still have a chance. So please pass this along to any authors who might be interested. If your first book came out in 1995, you can get your rights back in 2030, but you could notify the publisher/copyright office as soon at 2020-2033 (which is 2030 plus 5 years you have to act minus 2 years warning you must give). Ideally, you’d just notify them in 2028 and maybe include a list of other books you published around the same time. If you don’t do it in time, you’re out of luck!
(3) Termination of the grant may be effected at any time during a period of five years beginning at the end of thirty-five years from the date of execution of the grant; or, if the grant covers the right of publication of the work, the period begins at the end of thirty-five years from the date of publication of the work under the grant or at the end of forty years from the date of execution of the grant, whichever term ends earlier.
(4) The termination shall be effected by serving an advance notice in writing, signed by the number and proportion of owners of termination interests required under clauses (1) and (2) of this subsection, or by their duly authorized agents, upon the grantee or the grantee’s successor in title.
(A) The notice shall state the effective date of the termination, which shall fall within the five-year period specified by clause (3) of this subsection, and the notice shall be served not less than two or more than ten years before that date. A copy of the notice shall be recorded in the Copyright Office before the effective date of termination, as a condition to its taking effect.
You can find the complete copyright law text in section 203 here. (Look at (3) for particulars about the times.) Some of you have a few more years to wait, but you can plan now to get back those rights. I plan to submit to my publisher ten years before and offer them a deal if they give me back the rights earlier, so maybe something good will come out of this for me and my family. I know better now, and I will NEVER, EVER sign another contract with a publisher if they do not return rights at some point.
Meanwhile, here’s a little non-legal advice from someone who has been in the business a few decades:
- Don’t ever sign a contract unless it includes a return of rights that states a threshold at which point the book right revert back to you.
- Make sure the rights revert COMPLETELY. Shared rights is NOT acceptable. No other publisher will accept the book with shared rights, and you can’t invest any kind of money in a project that you don’t have full rights to.
- This is YOUR intellectual property. Unscrupulous (or uneducated) publishers will be happy to keep your rights forever because even if they make only a buck off your product from a random handful of ebook sales, they are making money without additional effort. Without a return of rights, they are not vested in pushing your book over the entire term of the copyright law.
- You and your descendants can make far more on your property than a publisher who is doing nothing with it except listing it in a catalog. You can revise, resell, etc. and keep profiting—especially in this digital age. You will also have something to pass down to your children as a legacy.
- Check around with other authors before you sign with any publisher. Do a thorough Internet search. If you find a lot of complaints, it is likely not a good option for you.
- Be careful of unscrupulous publishers who “pretend” to give you back rights but in other clauses take them away.
Here is an example of a “pretend” return of rights clause:
If after the expiration of three years from the date the work is first put into print, the Work is then out of print, Author may make a written demand to Publisher to republish the Work. Publisher shall have 90 days after receipt of the demand letter to give notice of its intent to comply. Publisher shall be deemed to have complied by publishing in one or more of the formats identified above or by entering into a sublicense agreement with a third party for publication of the Work. If, after Publisher fails to comply for a period of six months, then Author shall have the right to terminate this agreement and all rights shall be returned to the Author. Notwithstanding, the Publisher shall have the right to retain all electronic rights in the Work.
NO! This is a terrible and fake return of rights meant only to fool the author. There is no threshold of sales that must be met and since the publisher also snuck in a print-on-demand clause in the paragraphs above this one and wants to keep erights, they will NEVER consider that book out of print. That author can ask until they keel over from pleading, but that publisher doesn’t have to do anything. Make no mistake: this is an immoral clause.
Here are some good examples:
Example 1: If sales fall below 100 copies in any given six-month period, all rights will revert back to an author for that book.
Example 2: In any 12-month period fewer than 250 units of the Work have been sold, or the Work has generated less than $250 in revenues for Author, the Work shall be deemed out of print and author may request back rights.
Example 3: Victoria Strauss lists her Harper Collins contract terms online: If for two consecutive accounting periods neither the Publisher nor a licensee of the Publisher has printed copies of the Work . . . but the Work is available for sale from the Publisher or a licensee of the Publisher by some means of on-demand printing, or electronic transmission or reproduction and within those two accounting periods, the Publisher and its licensees, collectively, have sold less than 250 copies of the Work, the Work shall be deemed out of print.
Example 4: If the Work is not in print, Author may request in writing that Publisher keep the Work in print. Publisher will have six (6) months to comply. If Publisher fails to comply . . . then at the end of such six (6) month period this Agreement shall terminate and all of the rights granted to Publisher shall revert to Author. The existence of an individual print on demand edition or an electronic edition shall not constitute the Work being in print unless there are total combined sales of $500 or more a year for these editions.
So there you have it. Be wise. Think of the future. If you sign away your rights now with no recourse, you will probably be kicking yourself years down the road like the dozens of authors I know, most of whom published with small, local publishers they trusted. The bottom line for publishers is money, and we authors need to think that way too.
For a great article that will help you understand the return of rights clause further, please click here.
Copyright 2014 Teyla Rachel Branton
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