“Rights” simply mean how a publisher is allowed to use your work. And rights aren’t the same thing as compensation or purchase. Furthermore, rights are not the same as copyright – the right to your copy (writing) is permanently yours. What rights do not mean is taking a nude photo Sofía Vergara and posting it on the web without her permission. What they do mean is your ability to or not republished the content you’ve written.
First rights are used once your writing has been published in any medium (whether it be print or electronic, a magazine, blog, newspaper, or journal). So first rights are just that: the very first time your piece is published.
First rights are causing some perplexity among publishers and writers alike because of the Internet. Because the traditional relationship between publisher and writer has been altered as more writers self-publish on their own blog or website, first rights are more difficult to determine as to whether blogging qualifies as the first publication. In other words, if a writer posts an original piece on a blog, technically, it has been published for the first time – making that particular piece unacceptable to publishers. Evidence of this can be found on a number of user-contributed websites such as eHow, Helium, HubPages, and Associated Content.
Another thing you should know about first rights is that whether or not you’re paid for your work, first rights have been given once a publisher runs a piece. Thereafter, your work is no longer original (or exclusive). Both writers and publishers value first rights highly.
Exclusive rights have practically the same meaning that journalists use regarding interviews (“an Eye Witness News Exclusive”). It means they are the only organization with the story or interview, or the only media outlet where you’ll find said story or interview. When you sell your piece under exclusive rights, you are excluding any other publisher and yourself from publishing that particular work.
Some publishers will try to buy an author’s work under exclusive rights and claim they are the same publishing rights as first-time rights. First rights are sold just one time and are literally the first time a piece is published, whereas exclusive rights are sold over and over (by the publisher, and after their exclusivity expires, by you).
Exclusive rights is giving a publisher the right to publish your work exclusively for a set period of time; during that period, you cannot sell that particular writing to anyone else, nor can you self-publish it on your own website or blog. Once the time period has expired you are free to resell that work to someone else. In regard to the same time period, it is critical that you cross-reference the submission guidelines against the publication rights, as they should be uniform. Remember, when a publisher has exclusive rights, they may sell that work over and over while the author has given that right away temporarily. So the more money it will earn the publisher, the more money they ought to be offering you for those exclusive rights.
These rights, as you probably can guess, are the opposite of exclusive rights; if a publisher agrees to non-exclusive rights, the author is free to sell that piece elsewhere and there are no time limits.
One-Time Rights and Perpetual Rights
One time rights are the right to publish your work once and only once (these rights are usually found in journals, magazines and newspapers), whereas perpetual rights are the right to publish your work over and over, for an indefinite period.
Here again, as with first-time rights, the Internet poses a conundrum as many websites offer one-time rights, yet websites are not print, they are electronic, and have as much space to “print” as their server will allow. Magazines and other print media have a finite amount of space, meaning two things: they can only print so much each issue, and two, there is nowhere to catalog/archive past publications in future publications. Yet another way to put it is a website has no bottom: a webpage can run on and on and on.
Basically, this translates into a question of one-time versus perpetual rights. If a website publishes a piece based on one-time rights, they must then remove it from the site (including their archives). Otherwise, they are using perpetual rights. This means that if you sell your work to a website with one-time rights, make sure it includes a time limit before your piece is removed – a week, fortnight, or month at most.
One-time rights can be sold by the author repeatedly, and simultaneously. Consequently, these are the rights syndicated columnists use so they may sell a single piece to different publishers at the same time. Perpetual rights (as their name implies) last indefinitely, so work you’ve sold under perpetual rights effectively becomes the legal property of the publisher.
Electronic and Print Rights
Electronic rights are a publisher’s right to place your work in any electronic format, while print rights are a publisher’s right to place your work in ink. The great thing about these rights in the current publishing climate is that nearly every print publication has an online publication. This means publishers with both ink and web publications that buy your work must purchase both electronic and print rights from the author.
First and Second Serial Rights
First serial rights are rights sold a periodical (a newspaper or magazine), to publish your work one time, and as with first-time rights you are affirming that the work has never been published before. Second serial rights refer to a reprint of your writing after someone else has already published it.
A writer should carefully review first serial contracts to make certain there is not a provision/clause that also grants second serial rights. Second serial rights are those rights bought by a publisher to print your work after initial publication, and like one-time rights, second serial rights may be sold over and over again and concurrently.
Subsidiary rights apply to anything other than book publication. This is where people like Stephen King live. If you were to write a novel like The Hunt for Red October, and wanted to pitch it as a theatrical movie, then you would be selling subsidiary rights to the production company.
Any form of electronic audio or visual media is based on subsidiary rights. Because of their complexity, you would definitely need an agent to negotiate the terms so as not to burn yourself. Moreover, they will get a far better return on your work.