Freelance Spain
The Copyright Issue

In today's cross-media market, should writers sell their soul - and if so, for how much? Nick Inman raises some questions regarding copyright.


I have been reading the British National Union of Journalist's (NUJ) new booklet Battling for Copyright (published 2000, free to members for an SAE, otherwise 7.95 from NUJ, Acorn House 314 Gray's Inn Road London WC1X 8DP) and this has set me thinking about how I negotiate contracts to write travel guides.

CopyrightThe booklet explains that large media corporations increasingly insist on buying freelance contributors' copyright. Often they do this by way of an ultimatum: "sign this contract giving us all rights over your work or you won't work for us again." Even The Guardian, that sanctuary of liberal views, tried this approach prompting a rebellion among its loyal contributors.

Organizations now want to own copyright because in this "cross-media" age it is easy and profitable to republish digitally-stored material in many formats, most conspicuously via the Internet. This also works the other way: internet companies expect to buy copyright just in case they ever want to use the material in print.

There seem to be some fundamental issues at stake here for freelance writers. Traditionally media organizations would just buy the rights to publish once, because that is all they needed, and this should be the natural order of things. In most EU countries, I believe, the law specifies that creators keep their copyright as a matter of course. (If anyone can confirm this, I would be interested to hear.) And, it is interesting to note, photographers have always kept copyright (unless specifically commissioned and paid hefty compensation).

There is also a wider, moral issue to consider. As small publishers get swallowed up by larger ones, large amounts of copyright-free freelance material gets concentrated into a few hands. Which could mean that they need less new material and are more able to dictate the terms by which it is created. You may even do a job for a small company in good faith, only to find that rights to your material have been acquired by some monster organization that can then edit or transform it for profit, in any way that it wishes, without consulting you (let alone paying you more than the original fee).

The authors of the NUJ booklet advise freelances not to be antagonistic about copyright but not to sign it away either. We should, they say, strive for a "win-win" situation. They suggest that we negotiate with new clients by asking them what they really want to do with our material. We should sell the client a licence to use it according to their real needs: they get to use it only in such and such a way (in the case of the website, probably putting a time limit on it), the fee reflecting how much use they intend to make of it. After all, why should a web company buy the right to use your material in a glossy book published in Sri Lanka, if it theoretically has no real intention of ever producing such a product?

All this is by way of preamble to my main question. An individual article sent to a newspaper or magazine is one thing - they publish it once and there is no reason for them to acquire copyright. But much of my work is for travel guides that have more than one author. Publishers invariably insist that I give them copyright of the material I produce. They are then able to use it in other books (eg "spin-down" titles) and in other ways (the web, on CD-Roms etc). By comparison I also supply photographs for travel guides and the terms under which a publisher expects to buy them are quite different: they buy the right to use the photograph in one publication only, and know that they will usually have to pay for any new edition or new media. Perhaps this reflects the collective bargaining power of freelance photographers as compared with that of freelance writers.

An extension of the multi-author travel guide is the travel-orientated website which could have potentially hundreds of contributors. These organizations too expect to buy copyright for a one-off fee. This is a growth area and I think a concerted freelance response here is essential. We each agree individual contracts but we can share information about what we have managed to achieve in negotiation.

What do you think:
1) Is copyright a non-issue as long as you get paid? Are you happy just to rewrite material for a new market (as we all do) rather than to make use of technology and send the same text to a new, non-competing market (which is much more time-efficient and therefore profitable)?
2) Should we all be insisting on keeping our copyright when we supply material for multi-author books?
3) Is there a difference between a book fitting into an existing series and therefore commisioned to order and a book which has been suggested by a freelance?
4) Have you experienced of both kinds of books - those in which you surrender copyright and those in which you keep it? How do fees/royalties compare? Does the fee make it worth giving up copyright?
5) Are there any good reasons why contributors should not keep their copyright? Does it make administration and budgets for a project a nightmare? Could it make the difference between profit and loss for a publisher? If you have ever commissioned freelance material or negotiated contracts, I'd be interested to hear your views.
6) Have you had any successful negotiations over copyright?
7) Have you come up with a successful formula of words that can be placed in a contract, which works for both publisher and contributor?

Paradoxically, as more people work freelance, it is less easy for us to band together to protect our common interests. But I think we should act as an interest group and share information at the very least.


What are your views? Take part in the debate, and post your thoughts
on our Freelance Exchange forum

You can also contact Nick Inman by email at [email protected]

Nick Inman, based in the UK, is a writer, editor and photographer who has specialized in all things Spanish since 1988. 

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