Using a copyright license agreement for written work

Thinking about granting a copyright license over one of your written works? Learn more about how a copyright license agreement can protect you.

by Belle Wong, J.D.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  3min read

One way that writers can generate an income from their original written work is to provide another party with a copyright license to use their writing in exchange for payment. This commonly happens, for example, when a short story is included in an anthology or if an article is reprinted in another publication.

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Assignment vs. copyright license

As the owner of copyright over your written work, you are able to transfer that copyright to someone else. There are two ways to do so:

  • Assignment. When you assign copyright, you transfer your full ownership of the copyright to someone else.
  • Copyright license. You can transfer copyright to someone, called the licensee, by giving them a copyright license. In most situations, this is the preferable method, as you still keep your copyright over your work. The copyright license merely gives the other party the right to deal with the work in the manner specified in the license.

How to get a copyright license agreement

You can give a copyright license to someone either verbally or in writing, although the latter is always preferable so as to better protect your interests. A written license requires a copyright license agreement, which requires either a template, a standard agreement, or drafting your own custom document.

Using a written agreement is also ideal because it gives you the opportunity to describe in detail any limitations or restrictions you are placing on the licensee's use of your copyright. For example, you can dictate the duration of the license, in what geographical areas the licensee is permitted to use the license, the purpose of the use of your copyrighted work, and even the media in which the licensee can use the work.

For example, if you've written a book that a publisher is interested in publishing, the copyright license you give them might permit the publisher to reproduce and distribute the book in print format only. This means they cannot sell digital copies of the book.

Implied copyright license

It's important that writers understand the concept of an implied copyright license. Under copyright law, only copyright licenses that transfer exclusive rights need to be in writing. An exclusive copyright license means the licensee is the only one allowed to exercise the particular right specified in the license. For example, if a publisher publishes your book in print format, they generally require that you give them the exclusive right to do this so they don't end up competing with other publishers issuing a print version of your book.

Because only the transfer of exclusive rights needs to be in writing, there are sometimes situations where a copyright license might be implied. In general, courts look to the customary practice in a particular industry in order to determine if there has been an implied copyright license given, if no written license exists.

Let's say AAA Publishers puts out a call for written submissions for its upcoming anthology of supernatural short stories. After Mitchell submits his work, AAA informs him that it has been selected for inclusion. However, the only document AAA Publishers sends Mitchell to sign states that his story has been selected for inclusion in the anthology and that he will receive a small fee plus five copies of the anthology once it's published. There is no copyright licensing wording in the document giving AAA Publishers any rights to publish or distribute the story.

Mitchell has also entered his short story into a writing contest. The story is selected as one of the winners and will be produced as a movie. However, one of the conditions of winning is that the story cannot be published anywhere else. So Mitchell takes AAA Publishers to court, claiming that they do not have the proper copyright license to publish his short story in their anthology.

In this case, a court might take a look at how the anthology publishing industry works and determine that Mitchell did give AAA Publishers an implied copyright license when he signed the document that AAA Publishers sent him, because both parties intended for the short story to be published in the anthology.

As a writer, a properly drafted copyright license agreement can help you make an income from your writing while simultaneously protecting the copyright over your work. As such, it's a good idea to know what rights you can transfer in a copyright license and to be aware of the restrictions you can impose on such rights.

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Belle Wong, J.D.

About the Author

Belle Wong, J.D.

Belle Wong, is a freelance writer specializing in small business, personal finance, banking, and tech/SAAS. She spends h… Read more

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