This page provides a summary of the types of publishing rights and what your options are when negotiating each.
Introduction to publishing rights
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.
For example: you might own the copyright on images for a book, but you grant a specific publisher the right to publish those images in a certain country for a certain period of time, under specific conditions. By granting these rights you are not handing over your copyright, you are simply giving permission for a specified purpose.
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.
Figure 1: Every book should have a page like this, called the 'imprint page', either very close to the front or at the very back of the book, such as in this case, which lists the rights holders to every aspect of the book. This one, for example, features images by a group of photographers, all of whom are listed with the details of which pages their images feature on.
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. For example, in Poland, where almost nobody speaks English, the local publishers buy the Polish-language rights to material that has already been produced by other international publishers. They will often buy the rights to the final version of the book, already designed and ready to print, and will simply replace the text. This is much cheaper for them than having to design a new book from scratch.
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.)
Film rights are another avenue to consider. A publisher might be better connected and equipped to negotiate film rights for the material on your behalf, in which case they will share the proceeds with you, but do be clear about what you can and cannot do in this medium. By innocently putting a short multimedia clip of your work on Youtube, you might be contravening rights you have granted to a publisher. Ensure this is clarified in writing in advance.
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 maximised: for example, you might stipulate to an African publisher that they have foreign territory rights for one year. This incentivises them to try to sell the other territory or language rights in that year, earning revenue for both themselves and you (ensure this sale of rights fee or royalty is stipulated in your contract), but that these rights revert to you after that period, in which case you could contact foreign publishers yourself and earn the full revenue if, for example, an American publisher buys the rights.