March 25th, 2016

Subsidiary Rights

Susan Spann

This is the second of three posts on this subject. You can read the first HERE.

“Copyright” actually contains of a number of “bundled” rights that belong to the author (or copyright holder). Each individual format and language is actually a different (but related) part of an author’s copyright, and the author has the choice to retain them or to license them, and to license them separately or as a group.

Last month, my guest post looked at the “bigger” rights in the bundle—print and ebook rights (including “enhanced ebooks”), translation rights, and audiobooks. We also looked at “territorial rights”—the places where the contract allows the publisher to sell.

This month, we’re taking a look at some of the other “subsidiary rights” commonly seen in publishing contracts, many of which should be retained by the author.

Many publishing contracts try to move subsidiary rights into the publisher’s corner with sweeping language that treats them all as a group. Beware!

Watch out for clauses that grant the publisher “all subsidiary rights” or which license the right to subsidiary rights “listed elsewhere” in the contract (or in an exhibit). Subsidiary rights often lurk in several different paragraphs, so always read the entire contract carefully.

Now, let’s take a closer look at some common subsidiary rights, what they actually include, and which ones the author should consider keeping (instead of licensing them to a publishing house):

  1. Serial Rights: the rights to license printing of the work in newspapers, magazines and other periodicals, in serial format. Sometimes the contract distinguishes between “first serial rights” and “second” or “subsequent serial rights”—and the publisher normally wants them all, mainly to prevent the author letting someone else arrange for serial publication before the publisher’s book edition is released.
  1. Selection Rights: the rights to create, publish, and license condensed, adapted and abridged versions of the work. Sometimes, these are also called “extraction rights” or “anthology rights”—and the publisher often wants these, too. Like the other subsidiary rights, whether or not to grant them is a business decision for the author to make.
  1. App and Gaming Rights: the rights to create mobile apps or games, including tabletop, electronic, board, and video games based on the work and its settings, plot, characters, and events. Normally, the author retains these rights.
  1. Dramatic Rights: the rights to create and perform live theatrical stage productions (including plays and musicals) and dramatic radio or podcast productions based on the work. Normally, the author retains these rights.
  1. Film and Television Rights: (Sometimes also called movie rights or motion picture rights.) Most authors recognize this one: it’s the right to license creation of film adaptations of the work. Many publishers try to grab these rights (or at least a share of them) but authors should insist on keeping film and TV rights wherever possible. Despite what some publishers may try to tell you, it’s your story—not the publisher’s efforts—that studios will want to license, and you alone should have the right to determine the terms of any film or TV productions based on your written works.
  1. Graphic Novel (Comic Book) Rights: the rights to create, license, and publish comics or graphic novels based on the author’s work. Normally, the author should retain these rights as well.
  1. Merchandising Rights: the rights to create or license merchandise based on the work, from T-shirts to toys and even branded candies. Publishers want them, but authors often need them…and since there’s so much to say about them, merchandising rights will be the topic of my next guest post. Tune in next month for more!
  1. Non-dramatic Reading Rights: the rights to non-dramatic readings of the Work (for example, live or pre-recorded readings over the radio). These are separate rights from audiobooks, film, TV, and stage adaptations, and contracts split on whether to leave them with the author or license them to the publishing house. Generally, these rights end up with whoever has (or retains) the audiobook rights.
  1. “Enabled Access” or “Disabled Access” Rights: the right to produce and license Braille and other “enabled access” editions of the work for disabled readers. Generally, the author grants these rights to the publisher royalty-free, so the publisher can license them free of charge to various groups that translate works into braille and other formats for use by disabled people. However, many publishers will agree to insert a clause stating that any proceeds the publisher receives from licensing these rights will be split equally with the author.

Ultimately, whether or not to grant some or all of these rights to a publishing house is a business decision only the author can make. Often, it makes sense to license certain subsidiary rights (at proper royalty percentages) in order to make a deal. Other times—and especially when the contract over-reaches—it’s better for the author to insist on keeping these rights for himself or herself.

Some contracts don’t list subsidiary rights individually. If not, make sure:

— The contract does not grant all subsidiary rights to the publisher.

— The contract does contain the following language: “The author reserves and retains all rights not specifically granted to the publisher in this contract.” (If the language is missing, ask the publisher to insert it.)

This was a long one, but we had lots of ground to cover. So…how do you feel about licensing your subsidiary rights?


Susan Spann

Susan Spann writes the Hiro Hattori Novels, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. The fourth book in the series, THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER, will release from Seventh Street Books in August 2016. Susan is the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2015 Writer of the Year, and a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing and business law. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. Find her online at, on Twitter (@SusanSpann), and on Facebook (SusanSpannAuthor).


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