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Stop! Before you post those stories,
are they really yours?

“You’ll still (most likely) be able to show off your writing; it may just take a little more work behind the scenes. ”

— Sonya Senkowsky


By Sonya Senkowsky
These days, it’s a financial reality that at least some of your work may no longer belong to you, whether you consciously went and sold all rights, or whether you have some work you completed as someone’s employee (which, in most cases, means it was a “work for hire” and your former employer owns it).

So what about the freelancer who wants to give potential clients as well as subjects a taste of his or her work? Shedding an affiliation with a large publication can be freeing, but it can also be frightening, with one of the chief fears being: “How will anyone know I’m for real?”

Don’t worry. You’ll still (most likely) be able to show off your writing; it may just take a little more work behind the scenes. Here’s some advice based on my own experience as a freelance writer; I’m not a lawyer, however, and the legal world can change rapidly. Contact an attorney or contract adviser if you have further questions or to ensure all my advice is up-to-date and applies in your case.

First, figure out what you own and don’t own. If you signed contracts for freelance work, this is easy; just look up what the contracts say. If you sold first North American or first world rights or one-time rights and the article already ran, you are in the clear. Some contracts also specify a time period during which x publication has exclusive rights to use your work; if that time period is over, you are free and clear to reprint your written work.

What if you didn’t have a contract? If you’re a freelancer who did work without a written contract, the current consensus is that you have sold only first rights and ownership is yours; any additional publications, such as online posting, is supposed to be up to you to negotiate separately. In short, yes, you own these and can re-post them on your site.

What if you wrote the pieces while you were an employee? Specifics may differ, but it’s safest to assume you do not own anything you wrote while you were an employee, or as “work for hire.”

Post what you do own, and ask permission for the rest. To get permission to reprint the articles you do not own, find out who is in charge of “reprint permissions” at your workplace or former workplace and send them your request. Tell them the nature of your site (ie., a professional site to promote your freelance writing business) and an honest estimate of how many visitors you get, if you know. Also include a link to the site so they can see for themselves. Many employers will probably be accommodating, depending on the nature of your site. If your site is doing so well you could start to sell advertising, however, you could be asked to pay a fee based on the number of “hits” you get.

Search the Web. If for some reason you don’t want to ask special permission, you could search for what stories you’ve written that are already being freely distributed on the Web and, rather than reposting the story, just refer your readers there. In most cases, you can just link to these without asking for special permission — though, read carefully; some sites try to forbid what they call “deep links,” or any link that does not go directly to the site’s home page. Another disadvantage: The pages may disappear, so you should check frequently to be sure they’re still live. And no, you cannot save them and repost the pages on your site, at least not without permission. (This is one reason it may be best simply to get permission to repost the piece on your own site to start with.)

Make Use of ‘Fair Use.’ It is perfectly reasonable and fair to briefly excerpt a piece someone else owns the copyright to, as long as the excerpt falls under what the law considers fair use. This is the rule that’s in play when publications use photos of book covers next to book reviews. I employ fair use on my site when I offer a brief but tantalizing excerpt from stories I wrote, then offer a link to a paid archives (run by my former employer, a newspaper) if readers want to see more. I hope that by not including full-text and by referring interested readers to pay the copyright holder, I am making it clear that I respect the copyright and I am employing fair use. I also post some very low-resolution scans of my clips — just enough to give a sense of how my stories were played, but not enough to make it possible for someone else to use the other material displayed.

Then again, some would tell you that the definition of fair use is debatable, so the absolute safest thing to do in this regard is not to rely on it much, if at all.

If someone complains, take the material off your site first, and argue later (preferably after consulting legal counsel); better safe than sorry.

Think Ahead. Because things can get confusing fast if you don’t have permission to re-use your works, I have taken to getting an additional line inserted in my contracts. It basically says I am allowed to reprint my article for self-promotion on my Web site. Even those who insist on “all rights” generally allow this. I can’t remember anyone who’s said no since I started doing it.

About the Author
Sonya Senkowsky is a freelance science writer based in Anchorage and founder of AlaskaWriters Homestead. She offers advice and coaching for freelancers and news writers and a home on the Web to Alaska writers of all kinds.

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Photos of Sonya Senkowsky © 2004 David Jensen / David Jensen Photography.

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