A Comprehensive Guide to Book Licensing and Protecting Your Work

Learn what rights you have for your book and how to protect them through the publishing process.

Cat Webling
Cat Webling
Person about to start running

I think every author’s nightmare is to find out that they’ve lost control of their book completely. This might be because someone stole the manuscript and published it under their own name (in this nightmare, it naturally gets picked up by Penguin Random House and goes on to become a New York Times bestseller, selling over a million copies.) Perhaps an untrustworthy publisher got a movie deal without telling or paying the original author, or some other horrible circumstance. In my mind, it’s even worse when an author doesn’t know they’re being taken advantage of and doesn’t realize that what their publisher or editor or agent or whoever is doing is wrong.

You can’t fight back against injustices to your work if you don’t know what you’re fighting for, which is why every author, whether indie or not, should know as much about book licensing and the legal rights they have to their work from the get-go. A good literary agent should make these things clear to the author they represent as they move through the traditional publishing process towards signing a book contract. Still, it’s best to go into these situations with some basic knowledge. So, let me break it down for you, and give you some tips on how you can protect your book.

What is book licensing?

To put it in extremely basic terms, book licensing is the legal protection you have as an author regarding your work - this includes who has the right to publish, edit, distribute, adapt, change, or reproduce your work, where that can happen, and how you’ll be involved in that process. It’s basically a list of things that you have full control over when it comes to your book; you get the final say for who does what and how and when.

Book licensing has a lot to do with the copyright of the book. Copyright is the legal right to the ownership of the work - basically the proof that it’s yours. Now, in the United States, you technically own the copyright to your book the moment you start writing it; if you can prove that you were the first one to write that particular story in those particular words - for instance, if you have original drafts of the book and public statements about its composition - then it is illegal for anyone else to use that book without your express consent. There’s more to it than that, but we’ll go into more detail below. Copyright law is different for each country, so at a minimum, make sure you have a basic understanding of how it works in your home country.

If you’re self-publishing, completely on your own, then you retain your rights to all aspects of your work. If, however, you’re working with a traditional or hybrid publisher, or if you plan to sell your book anywhere for any amount of money, then your rights get a little more complicated.

Why is book licensing important?

Book licensing is incredibly important because it’s the only thing standing between you and the abuse of your work. That sounds super dramatic, but it’s true - if you didn’t have licenses over your work, then anyone anywhere could make as many copies of it as they like and sell them, making money off of your work without giving you a cut at all. Someone who’s just a bit more famous than you, with a bigger social media following, or has few more resources, could sweep in and take weeks, months, or years of your effort from you in one fell swoop, and you wouldn't be able to do anything about it.

This is called intellectual property theft, and the only way to fight it is to have legal proof that your work is yours and the offending party isn’t allowed to use it in the way that they did - that’s what licensing does. Licensing gives you the much-needed warning signs and follow-through power to tell thieves that they will lose way more than they’ll ever gain if they mess with your creative works.

Beyond that, licensing helps you set boundaries with the other individuals involved in the publishing process, preventing anyone from taking more than their fair share of your revenue and popularity.

What are the rights associated with books?

So now that you understand how important licensing is, let’s get specific. What publishing rights are associated with authoring a book, and how do those rights factor into legal situations like publishing deals and getting your book out to your audience? Here are some of the more specific rights that authors have over their work. Self-published authors and authors working with book publishers need to understand what rights are reasonable to be granted as part of the publishing process, and potential red flags a company is making a rights grab.

Right to reproduction

The right to reproduction means that the person who holds this right is allowed to make copies of the work, whether those copies are public or private. In modern terms, it often includes the right to post the work online in some capacity, either through an online store or a digital magazine. 

This right is extremely important when it comes to copyright disputes where someone has obtained a book illegally - either they’re outright claiming that the book is their own work, or they pirated it. This pirate could be creating and selling printed books without your consent. In this case, the author has the right to bring a lawsuit against the infringing person (infringing meaning that they are moving in on the right without proper legal process). It’s what keeps scammers from selling your work as their own and lets you get paid for all sales of all copies of your work.

Right to derivative works

Derivative is a word that means “coming from another source directly.” So, the right to derivative works means that you have the right to make new products or stories that pull directly from your original work. This includes things like sequels, prequels, short stories, spin-offs, translation rights (also foreign rights for foreign publishers to release the book outside your home country), and adaptations to other media forms (movies, video games, comics, podcasts, etc.) When Warner Bros wanted to make Harry Potter movies, they had to form a licensing agreement and pay the author for film rights, and to sell merchandise based on those movies.

This is the right that often comes up when we talk about fan fiction. Because fan fiction writers do not have official permission from the original creator - they have not bought the right to derivative works - they can’t make any kind of profit from fanfiction, and cannot publish it in any official capacity to claim ownership. Now, the tricky thing here is that, as long as fan fiction is written expressly and solely for entertainment, published only in an unofficial capacity (such as on a personal blog or a fan-fiction-specific website like AO3), unmonetized, and not directly forbidden by the original creator, it can fall under fair use law.

Still, the right to derivative works gives the rightsholder the ultimate say in what happens in the canon of the story and how much of that canon story is publicly available. It also gives them the right to be the only person making a profit from these stories.

Right to distribution

The right to distribution means that you have the right to give out copies of your work, you get to decide who to give them to, you get to decide how many copies they have, and you get to determine how those copies get into the hands of readers. Serial rights could also fall into this category, as the publisher is now taking a story and distributing it piece by piece over time.

Book retailers and publishing companies need to buy the distribution rights from authors in order to be able to sell, lend, reprint, or rent the books out to people, and because of that, authors can include royalties - a percentage payment from every sale’s profits - as a stipulation of that right. 

Right to public performance

The right to public performance is similar to the right to distribution, but has more to do with how people can present the work - you need to own this right to read out or display any portion of the work (other than the cover) in a public place (meaning any place where it isn’t solely available to normal family and friends, such as your house). This includes the internet - you can’t create your own Twilight audiobook series if you plan to share it publicly or make any money from it.

This right is important for all written works, but may be most prominently displayed in dramatic writing. In order for a play, musical, or staged performance of any kind to happen in a theater, whether it’s local or professional, the production company needs to buy the rights to perform it from the publisher or directly from the author. Even then, most times, you can only buy the right to perform a show on certain days for a set amount of time. If they want to add extra performances or extend their runs, they have to buy the rights again.

Right to display

So notice how in the last section, I mentioned that the right to public performance covered everything but the display of the cover? Yeah, that’s because the right to display is its own thing - authors have the right to control where, when, and how the cover of their book can be displayed physically or digitally, and who has the right to do that. This is another right that bookstores and other retailers have to have in order to advertise that they’ve got the book in stock.

Right to perform and distribute audio recordings

The right to perform and distribute audio recordings is, again very similar to the right to public performance except that it specifically covers the right of the author or copyright holder to record, produce, distribute, and/or profit from the creation of an audiobook, audio drama adaptation, or any other recorded version of the book. 

What are exclusive rights?

When it comes to all of these rights, you have two options: exclusive and non-exclusive. 

Having exclusive rights means that there is only one holder of that particular right, and no one else is allowed to have it while that one holder still owns it. For example, if an author signs a deal with a publisher, that publisher may ask for the exclusive right to distribute and display that particular story. This means that the author can’t get a second publishing deal for the same book, as it would infringe on the rights that the first publisher bought from them.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, having non-exclusive rights means that the rightsholder can do all of the things described in the rights they bought, but they’re not the only ones who can do that. Take for instance the rights of bookstores to distribute a book; they can carry and sell your book, but so can their competition.

What is selective rights licensing?

The rule of thumb in publishing at the moment is that selective rights licensing is the way to go, and it’s exactly what it sounds like - you give over certain rights while retaining the others for yourself. This makes it easier for authors to stay in control of their work; they might sell the non-exclusive right to distribution and display, but keep the rights to derivative works and performance, for instance.

Always be wary of publications that ask you to sign over all of the rights to your work. If you do that, you’re basically giving away the story to someone else to hold ownership of, which can be catastrophic if you realize you want to leave the deal, change the work, or pull the work from the market completely. It’s best to work with selective rights licensing, and to very carefully review any and all contracts you’re offered to see which rights your business contact wants and how they want to achieve them.

How to protect your rights as an author

So if rights are so important, how do you protect them? If you get copyright from the moment you start writing, then that’s enough, isn’t it? Well, not quite. There are some ways that you can better protect the rights you have for your work.

How copyright works for books

You may own the copyright to your book the moment you finish it, but if someone tries to steal it, you’re going to need more concrete evidence. Yes, you’ll have your original draft document and public posting, but it’s also relatively easy to fake all of that, so the best thing to do is to register for the copyright of the work with the U.S. Copyright Office. To do this:

  1. Go to www.copyright.gov.
  2. Select “Registration” from the drop-down menu.
  3. Select “Register Your Work” to be redirected to the registration portal.
  4. Select “Literary Works” for books or “Performing Arts” for scripts and music.
  5. Create an account with the office and log in.
  6. Choose “Register a Work,” then pick “Standard Application.”
  7. Fill out the form completely with the appropriate information about your book, including the ISBN, title, genre or category, publication date, and any other contributing information.
  8. Pay the filing fee - $65 for a standard application online or $125 for a mail-in application.
  9. Submit a copy of your finished manuscript.

Getting your official certificate of copyright will take about 1-2 months on average (there are a lot of claims for the office to get through), so be patient and respond quickly to any additional emails or letters you get from the office.

Protecting your rights as an author

Beyond registering for copyright for your book, there are a few other things you can do to protect yourself as a writer.

  • Include a copyright page in your books with the word “Copyright” or the symbol (©), the year, your book’s name, your name, and the ISBN (if available). You may also choose to include the phrase “All rights reserved.” 
  • Keep backups of all of your drafts and documentation associated with your book.
  • Have others who work on your book before publication - editors, illustrators, formatters, beta readers, etc. - sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) as part of their contract. This prevents them from prematurely sharing your work or using it for their own gain.
  • Ensure that you have included “work for hire” language in your contracts with your supporting team - this means that you retain the legal copyright to the work as a whole even if they’re making changes or contributions.
  • Carefully read any and all contracts you’re offered from publishers of any kind, whether that’s magazines, online publications, or book deals. If you have any questions or objections to what’s written there, do not sign it. Instead, get written clarification or confirmation that the terms have been changed and approved. Only sign a contract when you are 100% happy with the terms it describes.
  • Meet with a legal advisor to discuss what you want for your book and its creative future.
  • If you find your work uploaded or being sold somewhere it shouldn’t be, report the listing and the seller to the host website or store immediately and ask them to remove it.
  • Consider having a lawyer with years of experience in the licensing industry assist you with reviewing any publishing contracts that would turn over your book rights, or any other intellectual property rights, to another party.
  • Rights reversion: Make sure you know the process by which you get your rights back if a party you’re working with no longer wishes to use those rights, or has failed to live up to their contractual obligations.


Book licensing is a boring but essential part of publishing a book, whether you’re doing that for yourself or working with a publishing house. All of the legalese and back-and-forth contract emails mean that you as an author get to keep control of your book and get the credit you deserve. By protecting your rights and having the appropriate licensing in place, you have a much better shot of actively profiting from it without having to worry about someone taking it from you. 

It’s extremely important to not only understand your rights as an author but also understand how to protect those rights through the publishing process. 

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