Publishing rights are exactly that: the right to publish your work. Remember that in most countries, the 'author' of the work - the photographer, writer or creator behind it - automatically owns the copyright to this work. (This is the general principle, but note that there are many exceptions to this, based on the law of individual countries, particularly with regard to photography). Publishing rights are one aspect of copyright.
Publishing rights are negotiated by you upfront when you sign a contract. In the past, many authors and photographers were routinely required to sign away their copyright, but this is something you should think about carefully. Remember: you must negotiate this in advance and ensure you keep copies of all agreements, with both your signature and that of the publisher's representative on each page.
Types of Publishing Rights
There are all kinds of rights - the list just keeps getting longer as new technologies develop. This is good news for photographers
and other 'authors', as it gives you more room to negotiate. The list below highlights the primary and most-used rights.
Where are you granting rights to? Traditionally the specific continents are stipulated. So, for example, you might grant African rights
to one publisher, and European or North American to another.
While language rights are less relevant to photography than to text, it's still very feasible that a publisher might want only
English-language rights, and then you or they might sell on foreign language rights to other often-smaller publishers. Some
of the smallest countries have relatively strong publishing industries.
If, in your mind, you are only granting the rights to a publisher to publish a 'hard copy' printed version of your work, then you must ensure your contract with that publisher stipulates that. Digital rights, for example, are specified separately in any copyright licence agreement. By granting digital rights to your work, you allow your work to be sold to a third party. Why is this relevant? Well, imagine somebody buys a 'hard copy' of a book - i.e. a normal printed book. That person can then freely sell it to somebody else without contravening copyright law. The rationale is that they are depriving themself - they no longer have that copy of the book after they sell it. But if they were to buy a digital edition and sell that on, they would still own the copy. (Many specific electronic means are being developed to limit the sharing of electronic versions, to counter this problem).
When you grant publishing rights, you are not necessarily granting them for the full duration of copyright (which, in most countries, is 50 years after the death of the author). You could grant a publisher the right to produce the hard copy of your work indefinitely for one region or language or medium, but limit it on other rights, so think carefully about what their needs are, what yours are, and how the two can best be maximized.
The above excerpt is provided courtesy of "Publishing Rights" by Ms. Dominique Le Roux.