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Posting your Work on the Internet: Watch Your
by Nicole Bishop
The internet provides plenty of opportunities to post written work
to a Web site, to news groups, and to mailing lists or e-zines. But there
can also be serious drawbacks—the main one being loss of control over who uses
and copies that material, coupled with the poor reputation of the Web as a
medium for publication.
Another drawback concerns the potential loss of rights. E-publishing can
compromise the author’s chances of retaining first rights when seeking
publication in ‘hard copy.’ And, as you will already know if you are
an experienced writer, first rights are very valuable—a writer can
usually claim more money for first rights than for reprints, and some publishers
may be unwilling even to accept work that has already been published in any form.
As a refresher, here’s a basic explanation of ‘first rights’:
"A writer selling First Serial Rights is selling a newspaper, magazine or
periodical the right to publish the story, article or poem for the first time in
any periodical. All other rights remain with the author." (A Novice
Writer's Guide to Rights, By Claire E. White, a US attorney.)
And here’s a definition of "published" under the
United States copyright law:
"'Publication" is the distribution of copies of a work to the
public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. The offering to distribute copies to a group of persons for purposes of further
distribution, public performance, or public display, constitutes
publication." (Taken from "Electronic Publishing and the
Potential Loss of First Serial Rights, 1996 Ivan Hoffman, B.A., J.D. )
It's fairly easy to see how work posted to a Web site or an e-zine could be
interpreted as publication, according to the above, especially if the aim of
posting is to get the writing in front of as many viewers as possible. This can
be an issue whether you post your work on the Web, contribute to an e-zine, or
publish through an "e-publisher."
It is likely, then, that if you post your writing on the Web, your work will be
considered ‘published’, and that your ability to sell first rights for
that writing later will be called into question.
So, you want to get your work known through the Internet. But, at the
same time you want to retain as many rights as possible. So what do you
do? Here are some suggestions, based on my research into what others are
doing on the Web, and how it is working for them.
Please do not take this as ‘hard and fast’ legal advice—I am no lawyer!
(You can find links to legal advice on the Web at
http://www.writerfind.com/resources/publish.htm#Advice and Warnings )
1. The "Full Electronic Publishing" Route
The Net offers a great opportunity to get one's ideas (and name) out
there. It may be for you this is the highest priority, and it is this alone
which motivates you to publish on the Internet. It may also be that you don't
care who copies your material. In fact you may prefer that it is
reproduced as many times as possible (so long as the original source is
attributed to you, of course!)
As Ivan Hoffman puts the case, "As writers, it is our job to write. To
fail to exploit our writing over the Net, which appears to be some sort of gift,
like manna from heaven, because we are concerned about loss of future but
currently unrealized rights, seems a bit foolish... not to use the Net simply
because the writer is concerned about an issue that may never arise seems to
defeat the entire purpose of what writers are supposed to be
If you adopt this philosophy yourself, but you also would like to keep open the
option of negotiating rights for the same article or book manuscript with hard
copy publishers, here is a basic question that you may like to answer for
yourself before publishing your work on the Internet:
What are the potential effects to the market of the publisher/s I
Despite common assumptions, there may be no negative effect at all on a
particular publisher’s market. For instance, there may be
absolutely no overlap between the audience that visits the Web site and the
potential readership of the hard copy magazine. Or it may be that the
Internet can actually help, rather than hinder, the marketing of the hard copy
version (for instance, by creating a name for the author). These are just
a couple of points to keep in mind. I’m sure you can think of many
2. The "Teaser" Route
The other option is to offer part of your article or a synopsis of your book as
a 'teaser' to get hard copy publishers interested, but then to require the
prospective publisher to contact you to purchase the full version. This
obviously gives you a measure of control over who has access to your work (and
hence the reproduction of this work); and nobody can accuse you of compromising
their market this way.
However, if the publisher wants to obtain the full
article, s/he then must contact the author directly via an order form.
An example of this approach applied to sell book manuscripts can be found
This is an online clearinghouse for authors of both fiction and nonfiction.
(It is moderated, as all manuscripts are reviewed prior to posting. Here the author presents a synopsis of the proposed book on the site, in
the form of a brief classified ad, and publishers and literary agents who are
interested can then gain access to the full manuscript upon request. They
must establish their 'bona fides' before being allowed to access the full
Well, I hope this has at least got you thinking...
This article is not to be relied upon as a substitute for legal advice. If you
have a legal matter involving copyright issues you should consult a lawyer
regarding the specific facts of your case.
Nicole Bishop is the publisher of "Writerfind News", an e-zine for
professional writers and publishers which focuses on the internet. Subscribe
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