Copyright for Freelance Writers — A Guide

The Tale of Copyright and The Freelance Writer

Intellectual Property laws have been put in place to protect the original work you’ve created. But be wary that not everything under the spectrum of ‘imaginative originality’ can pass off as ‘intellectual property’. As a freelance writer, recognizing your IP rights would undoubtedly be the best step towards imposing and exercising them, if need be.

What are Copyrights?

In a general context, copyright is an integral arm of IP law that aims on protecting original work and the exclusive right to publish it. This versatile law pertains to the following creative domains:

  • Writing
  • Music
  • Paintings and Sculptures
  • Games, Websites and Computer Software
  • Photography and Graphic Design

and everything else that has a distinct and original form.

If executed correctly (and on time), copyright law inevitably grants copyright to the creator of the work, unless the creator chooses to sell or assign their rights to a third party for an agreed-upon fee or royalty structure (if applicable, but we will get to that later).

The Literary Digital Workforce: Do you make the cut?

Experienced literary freelancers are those who are aware of their niche, who to pitch to and how, and are mindful of mastering a motivational trigger that pushes them to promote their services among an infinite pool of other aspiring digital writers.

The online freelancing community flourishes on the premise of offering financial independence to those who seek it. For most freelance writers, making the valiant transition of becoming ‘self-employed’ not only comes with the perk of becoming ‘financially free’. They’d also hope for complete command over their life, the prospect of creating a global personal brand as an aspiring author, and endless access to potential clients and life-changing opportunities.

But be wary, that, with such ‘financial freedom’, comes the onus of responsibility. You must be aware of probable risks that pose a threat to both your literary work and on your rights as a digital author. In order to effectively foresee and tackle such risks, preparedness and self-education are key.

Being aware of your privileges as a freelancer include protecting your intellectual property and the below write-up serves as a guide on doing so, without compromising your digital success as a freelance literary contributor.

Client usage privileges: What are the first and second serial rights?

So, you’ve just secured a sale on an original written piece to a publication.

What now?

Before we delve into this, take a moment to recognize that here is where one of the financial splendors of copyright lies: Repeatedly selling what you’ve created once. As lucrative as that sounds, cracking the code to passive income would mainly come about to business-savvy freelance writers.

At this point, it is vital to understand what you’ve actually sold. As the owner of the work in question, you must be aware that you’ve only just sold the right to the publication to publish, on the basis of ‘first serial rights’ and have not sold your rights to the written piece, or document — in actuality.

In simple terms, this means that the publication has lawfully paid for the right to publish your original work for the first time, in any periodical and anywhere. For the sake of further clarification, this right is internationally modified based on geographical location and more than often so, by language.

This brings us to the consequent principle to serial rights: secondary serial rights. This primarily means that, as the original author, you’d be free to re-sell and publish the work in question, once the procuring publication releases your original work for the first time.

Work-For-Hire: Plunders and Wonders

To sign or not to sign?

The nature of copyright law doesn’t permit discrimination between ethical and unethical practices and numerous unprincipled clients are aware of this. Through constant and learned duping, such clients will eloquently aim to manipulate your rights by initially refuting work to freelancers who refuse to operate under a ‘work-for-hire’ agreement.

Signing a work for hire agreement isn’t always the best way forward for freelancer authors as at best, it may be dissolute or worse, illegal. But on the occasion where you’re willing to oblige, here are a few articles to look out for, when reviewing such agreements:

  • Without the mention of appropriate compensation, be wary of clauses that may result in you losing the right to display the work in your literary portfolio or personal promotional materials. Your inability to practice such rights is not limited to lawfully showcasing your work at exhibitions or even competing for literary awards.
  • Articles that imply the requirement of the freelancing author to sign a purchase order without a list of specific project deliverables.
  • Intentional inclusion of ‘confusing legal jargon’ that results in the freelancer misinterpreting simple yet vital elements of the agreement such as overall project scope, continuity, and lifespan of agreement and final holder of exclusive rights.

Fool Me Once, Shame On Me

When you’ve been working in Intellectual Property for as long as we have, it is always a new challenge when working with unsuspecting creatives, who’ve sadly taken their intellectual rights too lightly and have thus, fallen as victims to the misshapen world of copyright infringement. It truly does take one ill-fated incident to turn a freelancer’s life into an expensive (and not-so-fun) whirlwind of legal disputes.

In a digital world where it is almost inappropriate not to overshare, stealing someone’s work and passing it off as their own, has become as common as 21 st century pop-culture. Most infringement scenarios are all frighteningly similar and will always revolve around people sharing original content on their respective platforms to later discover (often by fluke), that some blogger in a different continent, is unlawfully claiming ownership of clearly plagiarized work.

Despite the similarities in most copyright theft cases; the extent and magnitude of infringement are where it gets quizzical. Almost humorous. From entire websites being brazenly mimicked under different domains to people sticking their pictures on already-published manuscripts. We’ve seen it all.

And again, avoiding these would’ve been as simple as early preparedness and self-education.

But we get it.

As a creative, it is tempting to momentarily turn a blind eye, in hopes of avoiding having to face the music. Getting involved with the brass tacks and legalities of your freelance-writing venture is not code for sticking your head in the proverbial sand.

Bottom Line

Do your due diligence and aim on devising a concise and actionable method in place. We can safely say vouch that having the commercial aspect of your freelancing work from the outset is now mandatary and is no longer a preference. And it really is not as daunting. Copyright for Freelance Writers is as simple as choosing whether you want to own or rent your intellectual assets.




Greetings, I’m Edwin. I’m a Digital Marketing Specialist; a fan of technology and web development.

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Edwin Chang

Edwin Chang

Greetings, I’m Edwin. I’m a Digital Marketing Specialist; a fan of technology and web development.

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