Beware of any periodical publishing contract that identifies itself as a “work-for-hire” agreement or asks you to sign away your copyright to your publisher. If you write your article on a work-for-hire basis or otherwise transfer your copyright to your publisher, you will relinquish control over your work.
Traditionally, copyright law gives the author of a work all rights in the work, including the right to reproduce it, make new derivative works based on the original work, sue those who infringe on the author’s rights in the work, and reprint the work at a later date. If you transfer your entire copyright to your publisher, you’ll transfer all of these rights. You will not be able to republish your article or include it in a book-length collection of your past work unless your publisher allows you to do so.
The Authors Guild has been on the forefront of the advocacy against the publication contract, which the New York Times began requiring freelancers to sign in the mid-1990s. The pertinent and potentially compromising provisions are the clauses which (1) indicate that the “Times will own all right, title and interest, including copyright, in the Article(s) for all purposes throughout the world” and the one which (2) grants the Times “the non-exclusive transferable right to publish or otherwise include Prior Contributions in non-print media (e.g., the Internet, electronic databases [including Nexis] CD-ROM, microfilm, etc.), provided that this right shall be limited to the publication and inclusion of Prior Contributions in non-print media containing other New York Times articles.”
If you were to sign this contract as is you would not only be giving away your copyright in the relevant article, you’d also be signing away your valuable right to collect additional income for future electronic publication of this article and all other previous articles you’ve written for the New York Times. The Authors Guild takes the position that this right should not be given away lightly. In fact, it was contractual language such as this which prompted the Guild to file our class action suit against various electronic databases.
Although the New York Times has demonstrated an unwillingness to negotiate certain elements of its publication contract, demanding that freelancers either sign this contract as is or forego publication in the newspaper, Guild members have confirmed that after insisting on fair treatment, they were able to retain copyright in the current article and avoid granting additional rights in past articles.