Why Writers Need Contracts

By Carol Tice

Have you ever taken a freelance writing assignment based on an oral agreement? Somebody calls you up and says, “Write this! I’ll pay you this much!” And you get all excited and say “Great!”

This leads to messes such as the one below, which a writer recently asked me about. She’d recently written a lengthy marketing manual for a client.

I never signed anything with the client I did the manual for. Would it be legal for me to put a few pages of it on my author site? And what about selling the same manual basically to other clients? 


Ah, the fun that begins when writers don’t sign contracts. This writer is now in a big legal gray area. The ownership of this manual is unclear.

The company might well slap a copyright notice on it and send it out to their employees and marketing agencies they’re working with. If they register it with the copyright office, they’ll be able to prove they own it. This writer could also do the same and possibly beat the company to the punch.

If it were me, I would feel free to put a few sample pages on my Web site. Legal mess aside, few companies in my experience would object to a writer using a sample of what they wrote for the business in their portfolio.

The stickier issue is reselling the material. While the writer might be able to resell this manual and could well get away with it, I personally wouldn’t do that without asking the company’s permission. That just rings my personal ethics alarm bell.

Get a reputation as a writer who plagiarizes off previous clients, and that is not going to help you get gigs. And with the Internet, it’s amazing how word can get around.

In general when you write for a company, you are most often writing work-for-hire.
Translation: The company owns the work, forever. Generally, they pay very well for this privilege. They usually also ask you to sign a contract that says you won’t disclose any confidential matters they tell you about their company’s inner workings, and spelling out who will own the work. Though rights apparently weren’t discussed here, I’d bet the company imagines they own the work.

In this case, as I recall the pay was squat. And no contract.
My take: This company screwed up and didn’t protect their rights to their own marketing manual.

The question is, do you want to take advantage of that? I’m betting the company never imagined the manual would be resold. Even though technically they didn’t preserve their exclusive rights to the manual, they could be upset to see it appear in another company’s hands.

They might not have a legal leg to stand on for stopping you, but do you really want a pissed-off former client? It’s not worth it to me to have that negative energy about me circulating in the universe.

My recommendation would be simply to ask their permission to recycle the content. They may not mind, especially if you sell it to companies that aren’t competitors. Maybe if you cited their manual as a source in the introduction, they’d be pleased and proud. Since they clearly don’t know a lot about copyright, you might be fine.

And of course, if you substantially rewrite it, a subsequent manual could be a new, original work. You’re always free to do that. Concepts are not copyrightable. I personally have taken articles I’ve rewritten and completely rewritten them into new articles with a new slant or approach for another market. That’s kosher.

Full disclosure: I am not an attorney. This blog post is based on my decades of experience as a working writer. Have questions on ownership of your work? Get legal advice.

But word to the wise — sign a contract! Know the basics of what belongs in a writer’s contract and protect your rights.

This post originally appeared on the WM Freelance Writer’s Connection.

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