What are “derivative rights”? Should I grant them to my publisher?

Q. My publisher just sent me its new contract for my next book. Among the rights I’m being asked to grant are “derivative rights” in my book. The term is not defined in the contract but my editor tells me that it is defined in the copyright law. Is that okay?

A. Definitions are a crucial part of contracts and can be negotiated like everything else. If “derivative rights” are included in the grant of rights, the term should certainly be defined. Unfortunately, the most accurate lay definition I can suggest, and one which is consistent with the copyright law, is “everything under the sun.”

I don’t recommend that any author include “derivative rights” — with or without a proper definition — in the grant of rights section, subsidiary rights section or anywhere else in a contract. It’s as bad as saying you’re granting “all rights” in your work to the publisher. That’s what Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, the authors of the unpublished play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, did in 1942 and, as a result, they were never able to write a sequel or any other work containing the characters that Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid portrayed in Casablanca (as it was retitled). If your publisher wants certain rights (derivative or not), it should specify what each one is, and provide clear definitions. You can then decide which rights to grant and, for those you do, what the appropriate royalties (if the publisher exercises the specified right directly) and subsidiary rights splits (if it intends to license them) should be. You can also decide whether you should have any approval rights for the new work and what the appropriate reversion period should be if the publisher doesn’t exercise them within an agreed-upon time.

Movie rights, dramatizations and translations are traditional examples of derivative rights and are even listed as examples in the term’s definition in the copyright law, viz. “a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a … dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version … or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted.” The definition is broad enough to cover interactive video games, mobile phone “apps” and a host of other derivative works, including ones yet to be invented or even thought of. Just as parents shouldn’t send their children to camp without knowing what activities the camp provides, authors should not license their works without knowing what will happen to them when the rights leave their control.

(Originally published in the Summer 2010 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin. © Mark L. Levine)

Answers to questions on this site are general in nature only. You should consult a lawyer for information about a particular situation. For more information about book publishing contracts and issues, see Levine’s book.