Q&A: Foreign Rights

Q.  I’m self-publishing my out-of-print novel, in both digital and print.  Please tell me about “foreign rights” and “foreign licensing deals.”

A. Foreign rights are typically part of the “subsidiary rights” of your copyright, and can take different forms (also called “translation rights”).  Foreign rights, as a whole, are the granting, (or “licensing”) of your copyright to a publisher to do either or both of the following: (a) translate your English language book into a foreign language and sell it in a specific country or group of countries (“territory”) and/or (b) publish your English language book in a territory where it is not currently available.

In the context of self-publishing an out of print work, it is critical to remember that there still may be foreign rights “out there.”  This can happen in a two ways.  First, if in your original publishing agreement you granted foreign rights to your publisher, it had the right to license those rights to foreign publishers.  Those deals still may be in force under the terms of the original license.  (If you review your reversion letter, you typically will see language similar to this: “the Publisher is returning these rights to Author subject to any prior grants of rights authorized and the continuing right to retain Publisher’s share of any future proceeds from those grants.”)  Hopefully, you would know about these deals because a portion of the royalty income should have come to you (typically, half).  Second, if you retained foreign rights and had an agent, your agent or a subagent may have licensed foreign rights to your novel, which still may be in existence.  (You should know about these because you would have been required to sign the foreign publishing agreement.)

In either case, by licensing foreign rights to your new self-published edition, you could unknowingly be guilty of copyright infringement of your own book!  For example, assume that your former U.S. publisher granted United Kingdom rights to a British publisher.  You now are selling a Kindle version on amazon.co.uk.  The British publisher could sue both you and Amazon.

The structure of a foreign licensing deal is similar to other publishing agreements, with all the usual issues, except that the rights are limited.  Advances are typically small, and the royalty rates are wildly variable, depending on the country.   But be aware that, except for Western European countries, your ability to determine the validity of sales and royalty figure is almost wholly a matter of faith.  Not only will you often be dealing with a language problem, but the infrastructure and cultural differences of third world and former Soviet satellite countries are not worth confronting unless a great deal of money is at stake.

You also should be aware that under U.S. law, the translation of a book creates a new copyright in that translation, and typically the foreign publisher will seek to own that copyright.  This is negotiable.

Because of the many issues involved, it is recommended you seek advice from a publishing attorney before signing any foreign publishing deals.

© 2011 Daniel Steven