Good Question: Can I Sell the Same Article Twice?
Writing a great article requires excellent research skills and a killer interview…or three. When you’ve made that kind of investment in time and effort, you may be tempted to sell the article as many times as you can. But is that legal?
An anonymous RN2Writer asks:
I sold an article to [outlet redacted]. So excited! But my question is: Can I sell the article again to [different outlet]? I figure if one editor loved it, another one will too!
This question sounds simple, but it actually involves multiple issues. Today I’ll tackle one of the more important parts of the question: the issue of who owns the copyright.
Know Your Rights — Your Copyright, That Is
When you sell an article, you should receive a contract from the purchaser. (If you don’t receive a contract, that’s a whole other topic for another blog post.) The contract will specify what “rights” the publisher is purchasing.
Under U.S. copyright law, you own the rights to anything you create from the moment you start typing. This blog post is copyrighted to me, for example, even though as I write this it only exists as a Word document on my computer; it hasn’t been published yet.
The “rights” clause is an important one in writer contracts. Your contract may specify the publisher is purchasing:
- First North American Serial Rights (FNASR)
- Non-exclusive rights
- Exclusive rights for a defined time period, venue, or publishing method
- All rights
Under FNASR, a publication is purchasing what amounts to a “one-time license” to publish the article in North America. You retain all other rights in the work. You can’t sell FNASR again because it is a one-time thing. But you can sell Second Serial Rights (aka “reprint rights”). This means you can sell the piece again wherever you want, as long as you disclose it has been previously published.
Non-exclusive rights usually means you retain copyright and can sell the article again, even simultaneously. But read your contract carefully. Non-exclusive can mean a lot of things, and this phrase is usually modified by other language like: “…non-exclusive rights to publish the Work on the World Wide Web, in published collections of similar Works and within electronic media such as DVD collections.” You are giving the publisher a lot of rights here. However, you still are free to re-sell the article because the rights are “non-exclusive.”
Exclusive rights should always be delimited with modifiers regarding time, place, or method. For instance, you may sell exclusive rights to publish an article on the web for 90 days, or you may sell exclusive rights to publish an article in an academic textbook. The “exclusive” part of exclusive rights relates to the time, place, or method. If you grant exclusive rights to publish on the web for 90 days, then you cannot re-sell the article to another web outlet for that period of time, but you can sell it to a web publisher on day 91. If you sell exclusive rights for a textbook, you cannot re-sell the article to another textbook publisher, but you can sell it to a web outlet.
If you sell “all rights” in an article, it means you are transferring ownership of the piece to the publisher. Even though you wrote the piece, you no longer have the right to do anything with it. You cannot re-sell it, publish it on your own website, or do anything else with it. Obviously, you should not sell “all rights” if you can avoid it.
Always Try To Negotiate To Keep As Many Rights As You Can
Please don’t ever sell all rights willy-nilly. Just because you receive a contract specifying “all rights” doesn’t mean you can’t try to negotiate with the publisher. Ask if they would consider buying FNASR…or exclusive rights for a certain time period…or anything else.
Think of it this way: If you invested five hours researching, interviewing, and writing an article, that is at least $500 of billable time. When a publisher offers you $75 for all rights in that article, you are shooting yourself in the foot financially! But if you retain some rights, then you can re-sell the article again and again and make more money. Make sense?
Do you have any burning questions about freelance writing? Send them to me, and maybe I’ll feature your question next!
Wishing you well,