Why You Want to Keep Your Copyright

By now, we all know that, when signing freelance writing contracts, you need to be copyright smart and make sure that you aren’t giving away more rights to your work than you intended.

But many don’t understand what the big deal about signing over copyright to their work is. Most freelance writers don’t resell the same work to several clients, and act that is considered to be very bad form when it is done without prior knowledge, and often times freelance writers never have any intention to ever return to the topic again.

In short, for many freelance writers, once they submit a work, they are done with it and probably won’t ever see it again.

But, while this is true, that doesn’t mean that you can simply toss the copyright to the piece aside and be done with it completely. Even if you never think you’re going to look at the work again, there are many reasons why signing over the copyright is a bad idea or, at the very least, something you should think twice about.

With that in mind, here are five very good reasons to keep copyright in the works you write for others.

1. Your Portfolio

If the work is any good and you want to use it as a sample in your portfolio, having copyright in the work greatly simplifies the process of getting permission.

Initially, you may be able to link to the site where the work is posted to include it in your portfolio, but what happens if the site shuts down and you can’t contact the client anymore? The work could disappear from the Web and, without copyright in the work, you have no rights to republish it on your site.

If you have to give up copyright in your work, make sure that you have the ability to use it in your portfolio. Even if it isn’t your best work, it might be the piece that shows a particular potential client what you are capable of in this area, making it important in the moment.

2. Derivative Works

You might not want to resell a post, but it still is possible that you might want to revisit the topic at a later date and bring in some of that original work or research.

Derivative works is a gray area of the law where rational people often strongly disagree. If you create a work that is similar to the original, even if you wrote the original, your previous client may come back and cry foul over the new article.

Worst of all, one of the stronger defenses to a derivative works issue, that you were unaware of or didn’t have access to the original, doesn’t apply to this case. If you don’t hold copyright in the original work, similar works you write for other clients can fall under scrutiny and become major headaches.

3. Attribution

In the U.S., authors don’t have moral rights over the works they create. That means clients aren’t required to provide attribution to you for your work if your contract and license doesn’t require it separately.

But even if your contract does stipulate that you should be attributed, copyright is an important and powerful lever for enforcing that.

For example, if something goes wrong and attribution is removed from your work, you’re in a much better position if you are the copyright holder and they have a license to use the work that requires attribution than if you’re not the copyright holder and have just a contract issue over that one element.

Having copyright gives you a lever to enforce the terms of your contract, attribution being one of those key terms.

4. Client Reuse

If you don’t have copyright in your work, your client is basically free to use the work however they please, including posting the work to sites you never intended your work or your name to be on.

In short, if you give your client full copyright in the work, you are not just writing for that one site, but rather, for any site the client wants to put it on and that makes it difficult to know where the work is going to appear and how much you should charge for the article.

If you want to have any restrictions over how your client uses the work, you need to retain control over the copyright. As with Attribution, even if you have stipulations in your license, you’re in a much better position to enforce them if you have the copyright.

5. Orphan Works

If your client closes up shop or otherwise disappears, your work might find itself in a precarious state. If your client is also the copyright holder, not only will you not have anyone to ask permission from but neither will anyone else.

This may, in the near future, be a serious legal concern as orphan works legislation, which has been twice debated and twice shot down in the U.S., may make a comeback and make it so that works without a known copyright holder can be used for certain purposes without permission.

This is a likely legal issue for 2011 and something that can easily affect all of your works, going going back to when first started writing.

If you retain copyright control over your work, you know that, as long as you have an interest in it, that the copyright holder will be reachable. Your clients, however, may likely have a much shorter interest span in the works you create.

Bottom Line

In the end, these are just some of the reasons why it’s a good idea to hold on to the copyright of your freelance projects. It may not always be possible, but it does always play to your favor when you can.

Even if you never actually flex the muscle that having copyright in your work gives you, that being something that you should hopefully only do very rarely, it’s nice to know that it’s there and ready when you need it.

In short, having copyright in your freelance writing projects not only gives you a guarantee that you will always own your work and a means to enforce the terms of the contract, it also gives you peace of mind.

Considering that, as the freelancer, you are usually at a disadvantage to your clients, that peace of mind can be a very big deal.

Your Questions

Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private (However, please mention that it is a suggestion for Freelance Writing Jobs). This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.


I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.





2 responses
  1. Rob Avatar

    Your post came at a propitious time for me because I’ve finally decided to write a biography. The plan is to self publish an abridged version here in SE Asia first and promote it via the internet and in local bookshops. Then if it “has legs” I’d like to look for a publisher. I’ve done some searching about copyright laws, but they seem contradictory.

    I know that if I follow this plan and the book is popular here, pirate editions will spring up. I can live with that, but I’d hate to see it stolen outright. The person the book is about is illiterate and I intend to share author credit and royalties with her. I don’t want to try to find a publisher first because I already have bookshops that are dying for it, the market is here and I don’t have the time or money to deal with finding an agent/publisher.

    Any suggestions?

    1. Jonathan Bailey Avatar

      Can you get in touch with me via the contact link in the article. I think I may be able to help but there’s more I need to know and it’d probably be best to take the conversation off this site.

      You can also email me at jonathan at plagiarismtoday dot com

      Hope to hear from you soon!

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