06/23/2014 12:44 EDT | Updated 08/23/2014 05:59 EDT

Taking Away a Writer's Copyright Is Wrong

Publications don't exist unless content creators (i.e. writers) create some content. They deserve to be fairly paid for their work and they deserve to retain the copyright. Most major reputable publications do just that but sadly the numbers are declining.

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It's hard enough making a living as a freelance writer these days without having to worry about the nuts and bolts of copyright. Given the shrinking markets in the print media, whenever I land a placement, I'm usually so relieved that I tend to forget about the pedestrian step of completing a contributor's agreement with the publisher. But it's often the most important step in the publication process.

In the good old pre-Internet days when newspapers and magazines roamed the media landscape like the buffalo of old, writers seldom had to worry about mundane things like copyright. Placements were frequent and most publications didn't bother with written agreements detailing what rights they were buying from writers.

Your piece was accepted, edited and published and then you got paid. And if you were lucky, you got to exercise your reprint rights and the piece was published in another publication and you got paid a second and even a third time.

Major publications usually wanted first rights. In other words, they wanted to be the first place to feature your work. But after that, you were generally free to shop your piece around and hopefully make another shekel or two.

The new millennium saw not only the rise of the Internet and the decline of the newspaper and magazine industries, it also saw the decline of the rights of the poor freelancer. In the previous century, freelance agreements generally didn't consider new legal creatures like digital rights and electronic rights. Publishers just assumed that when they bought an article that they had the right to include it in their newly formed online databases which were quickly becoming a new, much-need source of extra revenue.

Writers got wise and took the position that they never assigned such rights and that they deserved extra compensation. A number of class action lawsuits were launched and eventually the writers received some money as damages to cover those lost rights. However, the good news was short-lived as publishers quickly insisted that freelancers sign agreements that covered digital and electronic rights as part of the original sale and without any additional payment.

Still, things were not too bad for freelancers. We still retained copyright to our works. But as the print industry's circulation and advertising revenues shrunk further and further, some publications looked to squeeze pennies wherever they could and the poor freelancer was an easy target.

My hometown paper The Ottawa Citizen was typical of this trend. Whereas they once paid for first rights, about six years ago they completely changed the rules of the game.

Potential contributors had to sign a new freelance agreement which granted the paper "the express, irrevocable and exclusive right to use the Content in all Media throughout the Territory." In other words, the writer had to effectively give away his copyright and give up any possibility of reselling the work elsewhere.

Initially, The Citizen added insult to injury by specifying that "the Territory" included the entire Universe. Recognizing that they were perhaps laughingly overreaching and that it wasn't fair to curtail a writer's ability to resell his articles to Martian publications, the paper quickly amended the scope of its agreement to "Worldwide."

Sadly, this new form of agreement is becoming all too common. Recently, I had a humour piece accepted by the reborn version of the venerable magazine Collier's. Thinking that this was the reincarnation of the famous weekly from years ago, I almost neglected to read the accompanying agreement. Once I did, however, I realized that this was not an acceptance to celebrate.

The agreement was entitled "Author Copyright Release Form" and had me transferring "all exclusive rights to the article under U. S. and foreign copyright laws." To top it off, the covering email stated that the piece would appear on the magazine's website and there was no mention of any payment.

Needless to say, I declined the acceptance from Collier's. I have to admit that if they had offered me a reasonable payment, I might well have been willing to sign the form. I'm not proud to admit that but, given the state of today's marketplace for freelancers, I figure earning some money for a piece is better than nothing.

But it shouldn't have to be like that. After all, publications don't exist unless content creators (i.e. writers) create some content. They deserve to be fairly paid for their work and they deserve to retain the copyright. Most major reputable publications do just that but sadly the numbers are declining. As for the rest, all I can say to aspiring freelancers is caveat auctor.


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