Small businesses are frequent buyers of written content for websites, social media, newsletters, email blasts and research. No surprise then, they have a vested interested in the material bought. That said, many small companies often make the mistake of thinking that a purchase means the written material bought is all theirs to use as desired. It can be a painfully mistaken assumption that blows up when the same materials appears elsewhere on the Internet a few weeks later. Here’s why.
Under U.S. law anyone who creates something in writing owns it unless he gives those rights away. That said, most people don’t assert their ownership in a clear form. However, a few do, especially those who understand the value of copyright powers expressed with a copyright symbol or, more powerful, they mail themselves the written material with a U.S. postage postmark, proving the date of creation. Businesses and search engines take this matter very seriously. While it may be expensive to actually enforce a copyright by legal case, when it does happen the penalty can be financially painful for a violating party, especially when the creator can conclusively prove copyright ownership.
Hire to Own
The above said, many people who want to monetize copyrighted material have a choice. They can sell it outright or license use of the material. Where someone is hired to write material that the buyer will then own completely, it is commonly referred to now as “hired to own.” This means the buyer, when payment is fully met as agreed upon, owns the written material, not the original writer. It also means the writer can’t go and sell it to someone else after the fact either.
Licensing is where things get frustrating. When a writer only licenses material he has created, he gives a buyer permission to use the content. However, the writer still retains full ownership, which means he can sell the material created to anyone else he chooses after the fact. Licensing can be in the form of free use with attribution (i.e. free to use but give the writer credit), one-time licensing (temporary use for a single publication or time period), ongoing licensing (regular use by a buyer but the writer still owns the material).
What to Watch Out For
When a small business buys content, it needs to make sure the purchase agreement is clear that the written content bought is fully owned by the buyer, not just licensed. Where an agreement is silent on the matter, the writer wins by default. The buyer cannot assume copyright ownership is transferred just because a financial payment was made. A number of small businesses have made this mistake in the past with unique, valuable content, only to find it printed again on a competitor’s website. Ergo the frustration.
Understanding how copyright works in a content purchase protects a small business. Additionally, working with content services that already take care of this matter for buyer clients makes it far easier to use content worry free. However, if going it alone, always make sure the writers for hire contract used is clear on who owns the written material when complete. Don’t leave the term to a chance or a guess.
Tom L is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.