Are Publishing Rights the Same as Copyright?

Once your book is published, can you use it in promotional materials or in your portfolio? Or does the publisher have the rights to it instead? Are the rights to the work the same as the right to reproduce it?

Publishing rights are not the same as copyright. The copyright belongs to the original creator of the book, which is determined by a contract between the publisher and the author. The publishing rights are given to others by the copyright owner, allowing them to reproduce the work. 

Read on to deepen your understanding of copyright, publishing rights, and the relationship between a book’s owner and a third party hoping to gain access to it. Remember to always consult a lawyer before acting on any information in Letter Review as the law in your region may be complex.

Copyright vs. Publishing Rights

Copyright refers to the ownership of the work, which belongs to either the author or the publisher, depending on the agreement made in their contract. 

If an author self-publishes, they automatically own the copyright, provided the work is not “work-for-hire.” When someone pays a writer to ghostwrite something for them, the person paying for the work owns the copyrights. 

However, the writer retains their rights if they publish with an independent publisher. 

Copyright owners of books, and all other forms of media, are in complete control of their work and have exclusive ownership of this work until the copyright period expires.

The copyright owner decides when and how to use the work, which they can essentially do any way they like. They can even license the work to other people to use in specific ways, in certain places, for any time they choose.

This is where publishing rights come in. 

Publishing rights are rights that copyright owners can extend to a third party. Typically, a third party approaches a copyright owner, either the publisher or author, and requests the right to do something particular with a book.

For example, someone might approach an author asking if they can republish their book with added illustrations. The author can approve this idea and will draw up a contract for the illustrator to sign. 

Most of the time, publishing rights can only be acquired after paying a fee, decided upon either by the copyright owner or through mutual negotiation. 

They can allow a third party to reprint, photocopy, edit, republish, e-circulate, adapt, and perform their work. The extent of this freedom is stipulated in the contract between the owner and the person hoping to get publishing rights

The Limitations of Copyright

Those who own the copyright hold power, but this power is not limitless. Copyright limitations include the expiration of copyright, teaching, parody or satire, and fair use. 

Let’s take a look at these in more detail:

  • Copyright expiration: The time it takes for a copyright to expire depends on the author’s country of origin, but it’s usually around 70 years. When this has passed, your work will essentially be free for anyone to use. Although it’s unlikely you will be there to witness this, it’s still something to think about.
  • Parody or satire: Regardless of copyright or publishing rights, anyone can satirize or parody anything. For instance, The Hungover Games are a parody movie about the book series The Hunger Games. They are within their rights to make this without permission from the author of the work they’re parodying. 
  • Teaching: A teacher can use a book as learning material without express permission from the author. Imagine the chaos if schools had to ask William Golding every time they wanted to use Lord of the Flies as setwork.
  • Fair use: The ability to use copyrighted material without permission is given under certain circumstances. These include criticism, news reporting, and research, amongst others.

The Limitations of Publishing Rights

Publishing rights come with significantly less freedom than copyright ownership. The owner decides what a third party can do with their material, which could range from only being allowed to scan it to being permitted to edit and republish it. 

The owner can even hand over ownership altogether if they decide to. Here’s how that might work:

  1. You must pay a fee to use the copyrighted work in any way. You’ll want to decide on what you’re willing to offer for a license before approaching a publisher.
  2. The right to publish can be reverted or terminated by mutual agreement or upon request by the third party. However, the owner is not obligated to terminate the contract, even if the book brings more loss than profit. 
  3. The rights you have are decided by the owner. These abilities, such as the right to scan or photocopy the work, can be minimal. 

You can, of course, request to edit, republish, and make other alterations to a book. Still, the owner is under no obligation to agree to these requests, even with a payment offer. 

Sometimes a copyright owner can provide a license to a third party and limit the time the third party is allowed to use it. Occasionally third parties will only be permitted in specific geographical locations. 

How To Maintain a Good Relationship With a Copyright Owner

The success of any professional relationship depends on good communication and mutual respect. The third-party approaching a copyright owner should be upfront and clear about their intentions for the work and how much they are willing to pay to the owner. 

They must also be open to negotiation and even rejection. 

A third party should never overstep the publishing rights given to them by the owner. They risk legal action against them and losing an essential professional connection and business relationship if they do. 

In the same capacity as you observe your responsibilities, make sure you know and observe your rights. The copyright owner cannot terminate a contract made with you at any given time without letting you know unless you have failed to carry out your agreed-upon responsibilities. 

If a copyright owner transfers exclusive publishing rights to a third party, this third party is the only party allowed to use these rights. The copyright owner is not permitted to transfer these rights to anyone else. 


Copyright is exclusive to the owner of a published written work. The owner alone can extend publishing rights to third parties, and they can extend as many as these for any amount of time they choose, under the circumstances they decide on.

Both copyright owners and third parties have rights and responsibilities in their roles and to each other, which must be fulfilled to maintain a good professional relationship.