Publication Date

January 25, 2024

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

Professional Life

Copyright, the legal protection that grants authors, songwriters, and other creators of original works limited control over the use of their products, is familiar to most historians. Publishing a book or journal article invariably requires that the author sign a copyright agreement assigning certain rights to the publisher. Usually, this presents no great problem for the author: the publisher typically is allowed to sell translation or audiobook rights to the entire work but not to alter the text without the author’s permission.

A pile of letter wood stamps

Before they agree to publish, historians need to be aware of what they are being asked to give away. Amador Loureiro/Unsplash

Recently, an editor asked me to write for his newspaper’s weekend edition, drawing on my historical research. We agreed on a topic, a length, a due date, and a fee. I wrote the article, and the editor accepted it. Then, the day before publication, I was asked to sign a “freelancer agreement” unlike any I had ever seen.

The agreement proposed by the publisher “hereby assigns to the Company wholly and absolutely . . . all intellectual property rights for the full term thereof throughout the world.” Another provision waived my “moral rights,” thereby surrendering all control over how my work might be used and my right to be identified as the author. The publisher also demanded the exclusive, irrevocable right to use my words “in any way it chooses.” The “freelance agreement” would have transformed my newspaper article into “content” that the publisher would be allowed to truncate, use in an advertisement, publish under someone else’s name, and misuse in myriad other ways—forever, without my approval.

Copyright law also comes into play when historians promote their work and enter public debate.

The publisher was startled when I refused to allow publication of my article under these terms; its lawyers insisted that the objectionable provisions were “bog-standard boilerplate.” I’ve never encountered an agreement like this for any newspaper, website, academic journal, or other media outlet I’ve written for as a freelance contributor. I submitted a revised agreement, granting the publisher exclusive rights to my work for 30 days and nonexclusive rights thereafter, retaining my moral rights, deleting the “in any way it chooses” language, and limiting its use of my work to “the Company’s media properties.” The publisher eventually agreed to my changes and published the article.

I encountered even more far-reaching demands from a British podcast that invites historians to discuss their work. A producer invited me to discuss my latest book in a filmed interview. Three weeks later, and three days before the scheduled interview, she sent me a “podcast release agreement.” No such agreement had been mentioned previously.

The document would have turned the podcast interview I had agreed to record into “content” the company could use in any way for any purpose, “in whole or in part . . . in perpetuity, throughout the universe in all forms of media now known or hereafter developed,” including the right to “edit, copy, make an adaptation of, exhibit, promote, transmit, distribute, dub in English or a foreign language, adapt, cut, manipulate” the interview in any way it wished. Excerpts from my interview could be spliced into a political commercial or a propaganda video years later, and I would have no recourse. The company would be entitled to assign its rights to any other party, which could use my interview for its own purposes. As an added insult, I would be required to keep the text of the podcast release agreement itself confidential.

When I objected that this language went far beyond any release I had ever signed, the producer responded: “We are owned by a media company with a background in TV, where release forms like this are the norm so unfortunately it is a requirement.” The interview was off—and I lost the opportunity to publicize my books.

The publisher was startled when I refused.

Undoubtedly, podcasts and articles in the popular press are good ways to call attention to historical work. But anyone who seeks to use these vehicles needs to pay close attention when asked to sign away rights under copyright law. Giving up certain rights—for example, allowing publication of an article—is unavoidable and benefits the historian. But an overreaching release may allow a media company to manipulate a historian’s words in ways the historian did not intend and does not desire, and to constrain an author’s ability to make further use of their own work. Read the fine print closely.

Editor’s Note: Perspectives on History requires authors to complete a copyright agreement for all articles published in print and/or online. The text can be read on our website.

Marc Levinson is an independent historian and economist living in Washington, DC. His most recent book is Outside the Box: How Globalization Changed from Moving Stuff to Spreading Ideas (Princeton Univ. Press).

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