If you write articles for print or online publications to position yourself as an expert, pay attention.
It’s time to find out if you know what you’re doing when it comes to legal issues like copyright, or if you’re just pretending.
Are the following scenarios true or false?
–Cosmopolitan magazine prints an article written by you. You received no money for it, but you maintain the copyright to the article. You aren’t interested in photocopying it but you want to post it at your website for the world to see. So you scan the cover of the magazine and the two pages inside where the article appeared and turn it into a PDF document. Because it’s obvious the article came from that particular magazine, and because you aren’t actually photocopying it, and because you still own the copyright to the article, you don’t have to ask the magazine for permission to post it at your website.
–A newspaper wants exclusive rights to an article you have written. You and the editor negotiate a $500 fee. The newspaper also has agreed to pay you a $50 “kill fee” if it decides, for whatever reason, not to publish the article. You also have convinced them to sell you fancy reprints of the article from their reprint department at a significant discount. The newspaper editor has offered to send you a letter of agreement. But you insist on writing it yourself, hoping to bypass the newspaper’s legal department. Besides, you can’t afford an attorney. In a case like this, it’s OK to keep the lawyers out of it, write the letter yourself and take a chance that everything will work out fine.
–You write an article and offer it to 10 magazines. A month later, an editor at Fast Company, the largest magazine, calls and says she wants to buy exclusive rights to the article and is willing to negotiate a fee. Now you’re kicking yourself. You’ve already offered it to nine other editors, thus blowing your chances of ever selling exclusive rights to that article to Fast Company.
The first statement is false. Even though you own the copyright to the article, the magazine owns the copyright to the completed version as it appears and to the masthead and text on the cover. The masthead or logo might also be protected by trademark. If you want to scan the magazine cover and the article, and post them at your website, you must ask for and obtain written permission. You could, however, post the text of the article at your website and say “As seen in Cosmopolitan magazine” without having to ask for permission.
The second statement is true. Patricia Eyres, an attorney and expert in intellectual property, says you should always try to write the letter of agreement yourself and minimize involvement of the publication’s legal department, mostly because of the delays involved. “I wouldn’t do anything more formal than a letter of agreement such as ‘Here’s what I understand our agreement to be…’ ”
The third statement is false. Even though you have already offered the article to nine other publications, you still might be able to sell exclusive rights to Fast Company if none of the other nine magazines has used the article. You’ll have to move fast, however. Contact all the other editors, withdraw your offer and make sure they haven’t made plans to print it. Confirm it in writing, either by letter or e-mail. Then you can sell exclusive rights to Fast Company.
If you got any of the above statements wrong, or if you want to know all the other land mines to avoid when it comes to writing articles, you can learn more from a recording of a teleseminar I conducted with Patricia, the intellectual property attorney. She discusses situations in which you really don’t need a lawyer, and situations when you must be absolutely certain you follow the letter of the law. It’s called “Legal Issues Your Must Know When Writing Articles for Fee or for Free”