In publishing, “rights” refers to the legal authority to distribute a literary work in tangible form to generate a profit. It’s the same thing as owning the patent or trademark to an invention or logo. In essence, authorship earns automatic rights the moment your story is put on paper. If you aspire to see your short story in a magazine or book, however, who owns the rights to the published piece depends on your negotiating skills.
First North American Serial Rights
Up until the early 1990s, the most common contract between writer and publisher granted the latter a license for the one-time use of the material. This type of contract indicates that the writer has agreed to sell first North American serial rights to a publisher for a set price. The publisher can publish your short story only once and publication is limited to the North American market. Once published, you can sell reprint rights to your short story, or “second serial rights.”
As the term implies, selling all rights to your short story means that you’ve given all benefits of copyright to your work to a publisher. In short, you will not be able to resell your story at any time in the future. There are variations to the all-rights contract that often include “non-exclusive rights” to make the terms seem more favorable to the writer than they actually are. According to the American Society of Journalists and Authors Contracts Committee, contracts like this sometimes leave legal ownership of the story intact with the writer but only entitle the publisher with the right to print it. This means the publisher can publish your story multiple times without additional compensation to you.
If you sell your short story to a publisher under a work-for-hire arrangement, then the publisher owns the exclusive right to your work now and for all time. In effect, selling rights under these terms also means that the publisher – not you – is the legal author of the piece, even though you penned it. However, in order for a work-for-hire contract to be valid, the work must be assigned, ordered or commissioned by the publisher before you create it.
If you publish your short story yourself, then you retain all rights to it. Self-publishing includes posting the piece on your personal web site, making it available for digital download or including it in an anthology you’ve written. You are free to resell first rights to the piece, including to markets in foreign countries.