Copyright, Contract and eBook Rights

What is copyright?

Briefly it is ‘the legal exclusive right of the author of a creative work to control the copying of that work’. Copyright is not a monopoly right, it is simply a right to stop anyone copying your material. Under UK law, material on the internet is protected by copyright and the representation of creativity in which copyright subsists are: original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, sound recordings, films, broadcasts and cable programmes.

The availability of material on the internet and the ‘free for all’ nature of the technology can lead to a relaxed attitude towards copyright laws. The internet has been characterised as the biggest threat to copyright since its creation. It is worth remembering that although everything you create belongs to you, it makes sense to place copyright notices on text documents by adding your name and date, and the copyright symbol ©. In reality, everything on the internet is protected by copyright law, but you must remember that the definition of a creative work is that it exists in some tangible form; it cannot just be a thought, you must have put it in writing. There is no copyright on ideas. Under the Berne Convention, which all major nations have signed, every creative work is copyrighted the moment it is fixed in a tangible from and the internet is no exception to this.

The problem with copyright on the internet lies in enforcement; the internet is so huge and so truly international that you probably won’t ever know if someone has infringed your copyright. It can help to make a clear statement setting out the extent to which you are happy for others to use your material without permission.

If you have any concerns that your copyright is being infringed or you want to look into the matter in more detail, visit these sites:

Authors Licensing & Copyright Society

The Society of Authors

The Copyright Site

Publishers Association

10 Big Myths about Copyright Explained – Brad Templeton

U.S. Copyright Office


Most e-publishers provide a copy of their contract on site (if they don’t ask them to supply one). However, this doesn’t count for much if you don’t understand the elements within a contract. Most e-book publishing contracts seem to be reasonably fair. Generally, there are no costs to the author, although there are many exceptions to this rule. Royalty rates range from 25-70%, paid quarterly in most instances and they usually ask for electronic rights for a specific term. All of these, however, vary from site to site and one must consider all the key points. Remember that although email agreements are binding, it is better to use a contract.

Royalty Rates

Royalties are simply an agreed percentage paid to the author on the sale of each e-book. So if your e-book is priced at £3.50 and the royalty rate is 50% you will get £1.75 for each e-book sold and the e-publisher will get £1.75 on each sale. So you need to find out what a particular e-publisher’s royalty rate is. It should be somewhere between 20-50%. Royalties are generally paid at regular intervals, normally quarterly. All of these points should be clearly stated in the contract. There is an argument which suggests that royalty rates should be much higher on the internet when one considers how little work some e-publishers put into producing and promoting works and a standard rate of 50% seems the likely outcome.

Grant of rights

Electronic rights give the e-publisher the right to publish your e-book in electronic form. If they ask for all rights then you will not be allowed to publish the work elsewhere, including in print. If they ask for print rights find out if they are going to publish the manuscript. Most e-publishers ask for electronic rights alone, leaving you free to pursue a print-based publisher. Be very careful that you know exactly what rights the contract stipulates.

Contract Period

The contract period signifies how long the contract will be binding once you have signed it. Find out how long the contract period lasts, when it starts and when it ends. Will they allow you to end the contract by giving a period of notice or do you have to see the contract out? Will they release you immediately if you find a print-publisher?


The contract should clearly state what fees are involved. Most e-publishers don’t charge anything for e-publishing a book, some charge for cover art or formatting material, others charge for editing. Find out what expenses you may have to pay and if there are any hidden charges. Do you have to pay for promotion, for instance?


Authors should retain the copyright of their work on the internet just as they do in print.

Creative Control

If the e-publisher you are interested in undertakes no editorial work, the author should retain creative control by default. This means you must have the final say on the content of your work.


Every contract should have a termination clause that protects both the publisher and the author. This means if the publisher does not pay your royalties on time or at all you can terminate the contract at short notice. If you do not keep your side of the bargain then the publisher has equal rights to terminate the contract.

E-publishing contracts should state the above categories as an absolute minimum, but you may find that they will also include sections on Sales, Promotion, and Format.

These elements are equally as important; you will need to know how your chosen e-publisher is planning to sell your e-book, promote it and what formats it is likely to be available in. However, an author should take nothing for granted and must become actively involved in the promotion and marketing of their e-book; some e-publishers insist on it as part of the contract.

E-book Rights

E-book rights are a complicated issue. But it is important that authors get to grips with the subject and understand the issues involved. Much of the discussion at the moment involves the link between electronic rights and royalties and why they should be negotiated separately. Royalties for e-books are much higher than for print books, and therefore you will need to clarify the distinction bearing in mind the industry standard for e-books seems set to peak at 50%, against an average 10% for print books. If you sign over your electronic rights to your publisher under a normal print contract not only will you be giving away electronic royalties, at the same rate as print royalties, you will no longer be free to publish the material anywhere else. It is strongly recommended that you negotiate electronic rights and royalties, accordingly, as a separate issue to other rights.

There has been much discussion between the Publishers Association, The Society of Authors, and the Association of Authors Agents in an attempt to clarify the position for all those concerned and to reach some consensus on electronic rights in the UK. The Publishers Association released a background paper late in 2000, entitled, ‘Electronic Verbatim Text Rights’ and stated that ‘Volume rights author/grantor contracts include all verbatim text rights exclusively for all media, except where specifically excluded, for the territory covered by the contracts concerned.’ Both the Society of Authors and the Association of Authors Agents failed to agree to this. The Publishers Association then stated that ‘many publishers would explicitly seek electronic verbatim text rights’ meaning they would assume that electronic rights comes with the territory. However, they also suggested publishers clarify that they are also acquiring electronic rights specifically.

The trend appears to be that an author will be asked for electronic rights with the issue of a new contract. The Society of Authors recommends that authors should retain all electronic rights, but they also need to know how to negotiate these rights in a controlled way. Visit the Society of Authors website for more information, or email them at . Or visit The Publishers Association or email them at The Associations of Authors’ Agents can be contacted on 020 7387 2076.

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