The worrying trend of selling your moral rights

There is a worrying trend in the UK where publishers have started to demand that authors hand over all moral rights to a work. Your moral rights include the right to be known as the author of your work.

Writer Joanne Harris points out on her Tumblr blog that the publisher behind such titles as Woman’s Weekly has both lowered the amount they pay to disgraceful new lows and started to insist on the transfer of authors’ moral rights. She’s not the only one. Tara Westgate writing for author Patsy Collins’ blog says pretty much the same thing.

What are your moral rights?

Established in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, your moral rights give you four fundamental protections as an author. Moral rights exist to safeguard your personality and reputation as an author. They include:

  • The right to be identified as the author of a work (the right of paternity).
  • The right to object to derogatory treatment of a work (the right of integrity).
  • Your right not to be identified as the author of someone else’s work.
  • Your right to privacy.

If you sell your work to a publication under a contract that includes moral rights in the transfer, you give up all of these rights with respect to the work. That means the publisher has the right to credit someone else, change the work to make you look foolish, and quite possibly give blatant disregard to your privacy.

By extension, it might be possible for the magazine in question to assert sufficient ownership over your work that you can never sell it or anything derived from it again. I am not an expert on law but I know enough to recognise predatory behaviour when I see it.

More alarming, it seems that if you give up moral rights, you may lose out on any chance of ALCS (Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society) payments.

Can moral rights actually be sold?

According to David Vaver, moral rights cannot be sold, transferred or assigned. This is because moral rights are personal rights attached to the author, not economic rights attached to the work.

My trusted research helpers reliably inform me that David Vaver wrote “Moral Rights Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” in the International Journal of Law and Information Technology in 1999 published by Oxford University Press. (ISSN 1464-3693). The supporting text can be found on page 270.

This means that companies like TI Media (the company behind) Woman’s Weekly are asking for something that possibly cannot be enforced in law and may, in fact, be illegal or non-binding. Goodness only knows the impact that TI Media might suffer were sufficiently motivated authors to sell work to them and then, en mass, challenge the contract in court.

Why now?

When you sell work to a magazine, film company, or other publishers what you are selling them is the right to use your work.

Earning enough for it to be considered fair is hard for authors as it is. ALCS can help but the least rights you sell, the more places you can sell the same work, and the more likely you are to earn a decent income.

It is hard not to connect moves like this to the disaster for British publishing that is Brexit. After all, in most of Europe moral rights cannot be sold (although they can be licensed). Meanwhile, in the UK legal protections of moral rights have been criticised as being far too weak.

It would not surprise me if TI Media are simply bracing themselves for a financial invasion from American publishers post Brexit.

What can we do?

TI Media and other companies like them will continue to pay less and demand more until things change. All the while they can sell you the idea that the prestige of writing for them is worth more than your basic rights as a worker, they will continue to try and take advantage of us.

This is not personal. It is in a publisher’s best interest to get the best writing for the lowest price. For them, this is just business.

Which means we have leverage. If, and only if, enough of us writers stay away from underpaying companies, those companies will have to offer more and demand less or go without. To do that, though, we need to work together.

We need to collectively say “no” to low paying contracts, contracts that ask far too much, and companies that treat writers like cheap disposable assets. If we allow our rights as workers to be eroded by publishers we risk making writing something that simply does not pay at all.

Spread the word. Do what you can to raise awareness of this situation. We are writers, this is something we can do.

Tell your writer friends – tell the whole world – we refuse to be treated this way. Ask writers you know to avoid buying from or selling to predatory outlets. Saying “no” is not personal; it’s just good business.

About Matthew Brown

Matthew is a writer and Geek from Kent (UK). He is the founder and current chair of Thanet Creative as well as head geek for Author Buzz. His ambitions include appearing on TableTop with Wil Wheaton and seeing a film or TV series based on something he wrote.

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