Q - This question is from the editor of a Christian periodical: We buy articles from freelancers, and then give permission to online publications to put those articles up on their Websites. I have assumed that if we assigned a piece it belonged to us and we were free to give that permission, but an author recently told me we were wrong. Can you clarify this rights question?
A - As I understand it, the question is whether or not you have the right to give others permission to use an author's material that has appeared in your publication. This should be spelled out in your contract, but apparently it isn't. It all comes down to what rights you are buying. If you buy all rights—and your contract needs to state that in order to be valid—then you are free to do whatever you want with the material—reprint, use elsewhere, give permission to others or whatever. In essence it belongs to you. (The copyright law says that in order to buy all rights it has to be stated in writing.)
If, on the other hand, you buy first, one-time, or reprint rights, then you can only print the material once, at which point the rights automatically revert to the author—so you cannot give anyone else permission to reprint or put on their Website. You need to refer the person asking to the author who will make the decision as to whether or not they will give permission. Again, if you indicate in your contract what rights you are buying, there is no confusion about this. If, for some reason, you want to have all rights, then you should be prepared to pay more for that and realize that some authors will not sell all rights.
Whether or not the piece has been assigned has no bearing on the rights issue. Again, the contract needs to specify which rights you are buying--which can actually vary from author to author or article to article—depending on what terms you come to with them and put in the contract. As far as an assignment is concerned, some publishers assume that if they make an assignment it is work for hire—which would give you all rights—but that is not true. Work for hire refers to work you do as an employee of the publisher—something you might write as part of your job—it does not apply to assignments made to freelancers.