Contract questions and answers for freelance science writers

Q: When a publisher offers me a contract, I'd better sign it or I'll lose the job, right?

A. A contract is an agreement between two parties, so by definition it's negotiable. Asking for changes may or may not be successful, but it's perfectly acceptable and, if nothing else, shows the publisher that you're an experienced professional.

Q: Once you cut through all the legal jargon, aren't all journalism contracts basically the same?

A. No. Contracts vary widely. For example "first serial rights" gives the publisher the right to publish first, and nothing more. This was once the industry standard, but has become increasingly rare. An "exclusive all-rights contract" gives the publisher everything, as does a "work made for hire" contract. There are endless variations.

Q: Do I need a contract when I write a story?

A. No. In the absence of a signed contract, all rights, including copyright, remain with the author. But a well-written contract is a good idea because it clarifies what rights belong to whom. Also, contracts address more than just copyright (for example, they may specify terms for revisions, payment, kill fees, reimbursable expenses, and the writer's right to approve changes before publication). There is no one ideal contract for writers, but a clear, written agreement on the writer's and publisher's rights and responsibilities protects all parties.

Q: Many of the contracts I sign give publishers the permanent right to post my stories on the Web, reprint them in special editions of the magazine, and syndicate them to other publications. Am I giving away too much?

A. Probably. All these extra uses translate into more income for the publisher — from your work. You should not "give" your rights away, but you may decide to sell them to the publisher for a reasonable sum. Typically, publishers offer a contract that covers Web or electronic rights; if you agree to it, be sure it pays what you believe the rights are worth. Publishers sometimes agree to time-limited Web rights, which can give you more opportunity to resell an article.

Q: Is it reasonable for me to expect to retain the copyright for work that a publisher buys from me?

A. Yes. In fact, article I of the U.S. Constitution granted authors ownership of their work: "The Congress shall have Power ... To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." In 1976, Congress affirmed that writers own copyright unless expressly transferred. Writers commonly grant "first North American serial rights" to magazine and periodical publishers.

Q: Does it matter if the publisher gets copyright?

A. Yes. In that case, you lose the right to republish, resell or license your work, and all the extra income. Unless you're exceptionally well compensated, it's better to keep the copyright and, if you can negotiate it, sell the publisher certain rights to republish the material. Some kinds of articles, particularly news articles or those written for a specialized audience, can be difficult to resell, so be sure you're paid enough for those articles up front. However, other articles, such as service pieces or articles with a unique voice or style can often be resold.

Q: Should I worry about signing a contract that makes me responsible for all court costs and attorney fees if the publisher gets sued over my story?

A. Definitely. Such "indemnity clauses" are dangerous for writers. Affordable libel insurance for writers is almost nonexistent, and it's unreasonable to ask writers to shoulder the publisher's legal burden as well. Try to get these clauses modified or eliminated if possible.

Q: Where can I go for more contract advice and information?

A. The NASW website and elsewhere, including the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Writer's Guild, and the National Writers Union. (The National Association of Science Writers does not endorse and is not responsible for the information or advice provided by other organizations.)

National Association of Science Writers February 2006