Many freelancers worry about what rights they're selling when they sell an article or a story. After all, you did all the work. You wrote all those words and someone else is getting the benefit of using them on their site or in their publication.
There are many different types of copyright and it's important to understand what they mean for your freelancing career. Some deal with online website sales and some deal with offline publication sales.
So what rights do you have and which ones have you sold?
The answer used to be very simple before the internet. It depended on what type of freelance writer you are and what the magazine would write in your publication contract. These days it's not quite so clear cut.
If you're working with a private client you should take time to establish what rights are being sold at the time of pricing negotiation. However, if you plan to submit your work to a content mill then it's vitally important that you read the terms and conditions before you submit anything.
This is what most website owners want to buy from you. If you sell 'full rights' along with your work, then you're giving up the right to be identified as the rightful author of that work. This type of sale is common among ghost-writers and content creators. You can expect to find your work posted on your client's site with the client's name listed as the creator of that work.
If you've sold full rights to your writing, then you can't re-sell those same words somewhere else at a later time.
A customer buying unique rights to your work means you'll be attributed as the rightful owner, but you can't sell that same piece of work to anyone else in future. They've paid you for the right to retain that piece of work uniquely without fear of another site owner turning up with the same work in future.
Any website asking for usage rights means that your work will be published (posted) with your name shown as the content creator, but you may find that you're giving up any other rights along with that sale. This is a very grey area and should be looked at in more detail.
For example: if you submit your work to Constant Content with the 'usage rights' box filled in, then the buyer knows they'll be purchasing the rights to use your words but you will still be noted as the rightful author. You may still be allowed to sell that same piece of work elsewhere. Helium also allows you to retain the copyright to your own work.
Unfortunately for those people who still like revenue-share sites like Associated Content, the terms and conditions clearly show that if you submit work there then AC owns the copyright to your work from the moment you press 'submit'. (see terms and conditions section 3 paragraph D if you don't believe me). If you're going to give up the rights to your work completely, you should be asking for more money than the pathetic amounts AC are currently giving.
(I knew there was more than one reason I really didn't like revenue-share sites)
Non-exclusive rights mean you allow the customer or purchaser to use your work, but you also agree that you're able to use it, sell it or publish it elsewhere as well. Places like Helium purchase non-exclusive rights to regular articles. The rights purchased change over to full rights for Premier Marketplace titles - and the pay rate reflects this.
Reprint rights are exactly what they sound like. The customer knows you've had that piece of work published somewhere else before and they're paying to use that work also. This is quite common with fiction stories that might have been published in a magazine first and then reprint rights are sold when the same story is accepted into an anthology.
Free Reprint Rights
Sales of reprint rights aren't so common in non-fiction articles, with the notable exception of Free Reprint Rights for the purpose of article marketing. Offering Free Reprint Rights to a piece of work means you've submitted your article to an article directory and will allow anyone to reprint that work on their own site as long as you're still named as the rightful author and copyright holder.
Private Label Rights
Blog owners and article marketers love Private Label Rights (PLR). Very simply - PLR means that the buyer has bought the right to publish the content as their own work on blogs or websites. They're allowed to put their own names on the content as the author. They're allowed to rewrite them, put them in ebooks as chapters, chop them up, use bits of them and generally do whatever they please. They are NOT allowed to reprint them in article directories or offer them for sale to other people.
The person who wrote those articles is allowed to sell the PLR to as many people as he or she chooses, which can generate a healthy residual income. The buyer knows that others may also have the same or similar content - which is why it becomes beneficial to rewrite them.
Offline (Print) Publications
The offline publication world is a little different. The rules are much more clearly drawn and expected. The pay rate also reflects this difference.
I'm not going to list all the types of offline copyright options here or this post will never end, but you can find some excellent copyright resources here: http://www.fictionfactor.com/copyright.html
I hope this helps!