Do Authors Own the Rights to Their Books?

If there’s one thing that confuses authors who are new to the publishing business, it’s the various kinds of rights that exist and can be bought, sold and licensed. This confusion leads to a common question with authors not sure who owns the right to their books.

If you have written an original book, you automatically own all the rights to that book. Those rights remain legally yours until and unless you sell or license them to somebody else. These rights can be worth a lot if you become successful, so protect them carefully.

In this article, we will briefly look at the various kinds of rights and discuss a few options to handle them.

Copyright Stamp and Stamped Impression on Paper

Legal Disclaimer:

This article should not be taken as legal advice and is intended as general information only. Make sure to get your own legal advice before publication for any of the items discussed in this article.

Authors’ Rights vs. Copyright      

A common area of confusion really stems from people interchangeably using the word rights and copyright. These are actually different. It is essential to understand these differences so that you do not mistakenly transfer them to someone else due to a mistake in understanding what they are.


Copyright is a precisely defined legal term that gives the owner of any given work full ownership and control over what can be done with that work and who can do it. Copyright in its simplest form allows you to give permission for people to copy your work.

Copyrights are sometimes incorrectly thought to be complex and only gained by taking some specific action.

Copyright is automatic. As soon as you create a new book, you automatically have copyright and, therefore, all the rights associated.

Authors Rights

Author Rights is a bundle of different permissions covered by copyright that can be assigned individually or all together in any combination.

For example, for a book you have the reproduction rights and adaptation rights that you might decide to license, whereas if you had written a song, you might license the performance right.

Rights under U.S. Copyrights

  • Reproduce the work in copies.
    • Prepare derivative works.
    • Distribute copies of the work to the public.
    • Perform the work publicly.
    • Display the work publicly.
    • Perform an audio work publicly.


See the Berne Convention article on Wikipedia for details of the agreement on international copyright

Examples of Author Rights That You Own.

Let’s take a look at some of these rights.

Hardcover and Softback Rights?

Two of the best-known rights are hardcover and softback rights. Hardcover rights give the publisher the right to produce a hardcover edition of your work. Hardback books are a lot more expensive to purchase but are also more profitable per copy. They are preferred by some readers and are popular with libraries as are they are far longer lasting.

Softback rights grant permission for a paperback edition of your work. These are cheaper for the publisher to produce but less profitable for you, so you will usually be paid a lower advance and royalty fee on them. Still, they typically have a far larger sale volume to offset this.

Audio Rights

The Audio Right gives a publisher or agency the license to adapt your work into an audio format. Popular examples include books on CD and cassette, audiobooks and podcasts. The right is commonly sold, and for this reason, it is equally as expensive to purchase but very profitable for the publisher. The audio version of your work will be more appealing to those who can listen and enjoy it on a time-limited basis.

Film Rights

Film Rights are the author’s right to have their work adapted into a film or movie. These are typically sold separately from the rest of the book rights and audio rights.

Domestic vs. Foreign

Domestic rights are the rights that are primarily sold and granted within your local market or country, the domestic market.

Foreign rights are sold outside of this domestic market, commonly as sub-rights (meaning they are sold to a party with an agreement with the primary work publisher). Foreign rights can also include options such as the rights for your book to be translated into other languages.

World Rights

World rights are the rights that are sold to a publisher who then has the right to publish your work in any country around the world. This option can be good if you are looking for a wider audience outside your home country and have confidence in dealing with a single publisher.

You can license them together to a publisher or individually for all these rights. This is a question of personal choice and often depending on the content itself, as some publishers will only wish to purchase the audio or film rights and not print.

Make sure to carefully evaluate if you want to bundle them or go to the effort of selling each one individually. You retain more control and potentially make more money if you go with the latter, but this will obviously take more work. Individual sales are much easier if you have an agent to do this for you.

Publishing Rights vs. Copyright

As we discussed above, as the author, you own the copyright and therefore own all the rights covered under that copyright. They are in your exclusive control to decide their use and distribution and how you will sell or assign them to anyone as you see fit.

The idea behind Publishing Rights is that someone cannot republish a story without needing to ask permission from the original author because you own them.

The publishing rights are one or more of those rights to publish the work you assign to a publisher, typically for an advance fee and maybe a royalty. Under the contract giving these rights, there may be a restriction on the exact publishing formats included and a time limit for how and when these rights revert back to the author.

In short, a publisher buys the publishing rights to a book, while the author retains copyright. There may be payments and/or a percentage of royalties offered by the publisher. There is usually an advance: this is a sum that is paid to the author before publication of the book.

Do publishers own the copyright?

Usually, the writer owns and retains the copyright to their book. If you are a newer author publishing your first book, you can negotiate for an advance, but it will most likely be only a token payment.

Keeping your copyright at this stage, despite what may be a low advance or royalty-only deal, will mean much more control and, therefore, income later if you become a famous writer.

Think carefully before selling. Unless a publisher can pay a generous fee for selling your copyright, it is generally in your interest to keep the copyright.

A publisher may request that the writer assign (or sell) their copyright to them, and if the fee is high enough, then you could choose to sell. The publisher can then register the copyright with the U.S Copyright Office and receive all legal protection for it, which will then be in effect from when they claim it until 70 years after publishing it.

Another way the copyright could belong to the publisher is an author writes the book under what is known as a writer for hire engagement.

A writer for hire is a writer hired by the publisher specifically to write a book that they already have an idea for or possibly a detailed outline. In this case, the publisher claims the copyright and usually pays the writer a one-time fee for all rights.

Should I copyright my book before sending it to a publisher?

You do not need to do anything special to copyright your book before sending it to a publisher or editor.

Copyright is established and belongs to you as soon as you write and record it in some manner such as writing, typing, or saving on your computer.

You can record your copyright with the Library of Congress Copyright Office for a fee but this is not required before submitting your book. As part of the publisher process, they will copyright the book in your name.

Hopefully, this brief introduction to copyright has covered all the critical information you need to know to protect yourself as an author and to use these rights to your advantage. If you are still unsure, always make sure to seek a legal professional who is an expert in this field.

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