Who Owns Your Work

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Aug 07 2009

I was told recently by a published writer that an unsolicited submission literally belongs to the publisher until they tell me they’re either buying or rejecting it.

This is madness! Are you kidding me? See this stuff drives me crazy! Who gives this kind of crackpot advice? See, this is why agents started blogs in the first place and why we so often have to repeat ourselves over and over again (not that I’ve ever had to address this question before). My goal, with this whole blog, is wrapped up in this one question. I am hoping to help eliminate this kind of wrong, wrong, wrong advice to poor unassuming authors. Thank goodness you’re heading in the right direction by finding agent blogs.

If you haven’t figured it out yet this so-called published writer is very wrong. An unsolicited, or a solicited submission for that matter, belongs to you. Sure the publisher can hold on to it for as long as they want, agents can do the same thing, but that doesn’t mean they have any control over it. You can sell it somewhere else, pull it from submission, or just plain let it sit there for years if you want. However, no one owns that work but you.


30 responses to “Who Owns Your Work”

  1. Good God in heaven, where do these things come from? It must be from the same folks who send porn spam on Twitter. Oh wait, am I the only one getting that stuff?…

  2. That question is just insane. I'm glad too, this person is doing some research by reading blogs. Just because someone is published, doesn't mean they know everything about the business.

    Is it even possible to know everything?

  3. Avatar Rick Daley says:


    Sorry, that was the result of my forehead smacking my keyboard. Next time I'll aim for the floor.

  4. Avatar terri says:

    Thank ya, Thank ya, Thank ya for this blog. I am a lawyer and occasionally hold forth in a forum about copyright issues. I also try and clean up some of the monumental misinformation about that subject (ie 'if you haven't registered your copyright you can't sue in federal court' ::headdesk::).

    However, can you clear up the one question I still can't get a straight answer to? Just how long after eating can I go swimming?

    Keep up the good work – questions like that show how much you are needed.

  5. Avatar magolla says:

    Oh, boy, that was a doozie. Thank you for setting that poor writer straight. I hate it when 'published writers' lead newbies astray.

  6. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Magazines are notorious for trying to buy all rights, esp now–and they don't have agents to help them out. Writers need to ask questions, try to retain as many rights as possible and not sign the first publishing contract that comes along.

  7. Avatar Stephanie says:

    Yikes…so sad that someone out there believes this to be true.

  8. Registering your work with the Library of Congress does grant you certain "Statutory Rights!"

    Yes, you can sue anyone anytime. But when a judge sees a valid copyright claim from the L.O.C. you're on solid legal footing!

    Haste yee back 😉

  9. Avatar Mira says:

    What did people do before agents blogs? Really, I'm serious. I tend to take this for granted, but the amount of information I have now, as compared to when I first started on going to the blog is enormous.

    I really want to take a moment to say thanks.

  10. Avatar AstonWest says:

    It truly is amazing how much misinformation gets perpetuated by those who are considered published. :-

  11. Thank you! I got this bad tip from a community college professor at a local writers' convention. It sounded crazy, but what do I know? Thanks for clearing this up.

  12. Avatar ryan field says:

    I'm printing this post and handing it to a writer I know who is constantly worried about this.

  13. A heavy metal ode to paranoia – (explicit lyrics)

  14. …Wow.

    And if that writer's publisher is telling him/her that, I'd suggest rethinking where to place the next book…

  15. Avatar Anonymous says:

    If someone/some company sends me an unsolicited item I do think I can keep it. Maybe if they show up and ask for it I have to return it. That doesn't give the receiver the right to reproduce the manuscript.

    I do wonder who owns the physical manuscript (not the copyright) of a rejected submission. Would that make a good retirement plan for agents? Keep all those old fulls and hope one is a major hit.

  16. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I never would have questioned such a thing, but I do have another question for you. Have you heard of Authonomy.com, from Harper Collins? What are your thoughts on copyright issues there? also, if an author posted their entire novel there would it deter you from representing them for that novel?

  17. Avatar Sheila Deeth says:

    I'm so glad you have a blog!

  18. I would like to echo the sentiments of others who have commented – thank goodness for agent blogs. I have learned so much in the past 2 years reading agent and editor blogs that I'm always amazed that some authors don't take advantage of them.

    There's a wealth of info out there – just type in "agent blogs" into google and you're on your way to educating yourself. What's so hard about that?

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    What if a contract says something like, "In the event the work is not published within 12 months of signing this contract, and after edits are accepted by Publisher, Publisher will release rights to work back to author."

    …and after eits are accepted? What if the take over a year and neither accept nor reject them because they're just too busy to get to you?

  20. Avatar Lucy says:

    @ Anon 3:03

    Victoria Strauss did an excellent post on Authonomy last September at Writer Beware.


    Writer Beware is also a great place to go for education on some of the abuses and even criminal activity attempted by agents, publishers and others in terms of rights and contracts.

  21. Avatar Lucy says:

    @ Anon 5:50

    That's exactly why you want an agent, whose job it is to light a fire under aforesaid publisher.

    Sorry, that didn't really answer your question.

    Somebody who is up on contract law can confirm or contradict me about this, but I rather imagine that you have the right in some form to terminate the contract if you are unable to reach an agreement or get solid information from the publisher. (Once the contract is properly terminated, from a legal standpoint, you should get your rights back.) Depending on your terms, though, you might be required to return money you have already received.

  22. Avatar Yttar says:

    How would that apply in the case of something like this (which was taken from the actual publisher's website a couple years ago as part of the submission package for a novel contest):

    "I submit my idea voluntarily and on a non-confidential basis, and I understand that this submission by me and its acceptance by White Wolf Publishing, Inc. does not, in whole or in part, establish or create by implication, or otherwise, any relationship between White Wolf and me beyond consideration in Round One of the present contest. I agree that this synopsis becomes the property of White Wolf Publishing, Inc. I further understand that the acceptance by White Wolf of this synopsis neither creates nor implies any confidential relationship, guarantee of secrecy, nor any recognition or acknowledgment of either novelty or originality."

    So by agreeing to this, does that mean that the synopsis is copyrighted by White Wolf, then?

    Is this acceptable (that White Wolf would own the synopsis) because for the contest, the novel had to be written in the Wold of Darkness and be about one or more of their "signature characters"?

    What if a writer agreed to this (because said writer didn't have the insight of this wonderful blog at the time), could that writer still write and publish (elsewhere) the story described in the synopsis they submitted, provided they changed the setting from the World of Darkness to one of the author's own creations and changed the names and descriptions of the "signature characters"?

  23. Scribes…
    You cannot copyright an *idea.* You can only copyright your *expression* of said idea. ie – your manuscript and its' contents.

    Yes, the minute you create your story, you own copyright, but that does not prevent someone taking that same idea and spinning it in a completely different direction and using that as their expression of an idea which they can copyright and try to sell.

    Several years back two films opened the same summer centered about the same conflict… Earth being hit by an asteroid. (SAME IDEA, two different expressions)! Perfectly legal!

    Perhaps this published author was speaking tangentially about his/her *IDEA* being owned by whatever company they submitted to, dunno, just a guess.

    So, if you're a nervous Nelly about submitting, by all means copyright your script via the LOC.

    P.S. Mira… I knew this when I was using a typewriter!

    However, I am not a lawyer, do your own research, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn when there were dinosaurs!

    Haste yee back 😉

  24. Silly, I know, but I got scared when I read the title of the blog, and the first line.

    *wipes seat off forehead* So glad you were just clearing up a wrong assumption. Thanks for the reassurance that I do indeed own my work!

  25. Avatar terri says:

    Haste: You don't register your copyright with the LOC, you register it with the copyright office. You don't get 'statutory rights', you get the option to seek statutory damages and so on. Copyright is its own breed. I know, I've been in copyright litigation for 4 years with my family company.

  26. Terri,
    Back when I was hiding from dinosaurs at the Holiday Inn, the copyright office was located at the LOC…

    If you don't register your copyright do you get the Statutory Rights *option?*… NO! (which amounts to NO conferred statutory rights,right)!

    Haste yee back 😉

  27. Yttar, is the synopsis for that contest based on one of White Wolf's existing worlds, or is it a wholly original world created by the writer? White Wolf has several IPs that people can write for (probably as work-for-hire, but that's just speculation), but the company will likely hold far more rights for the work than most publishers.

  28. Avatar Yttar says:

    DeadlyAccurate: The synopsis was for a story set in White Wolf's World of Darkness, not a world the author created.

  29. Avatar Julie says:

    It is truly amazing how much misinformation gets perpetuated by those who are considered published.

    Email Marketing Solutions

  30. Any intelligent person knows that just letting an "industry professional" read your work does not mean that person suddenly owns your work.

    The important question is who owns the copyright when it is published? In songwriting, the publisher owns it. In book writing there can be partial ownership. I wish someone would explain all this in detail.