The Contract that Kills Journalism

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I’m not sure when it started, but there’s a dangerous trend in the publishing industry to leech value from a writer’s work and make it almost impossible to earn a real living off of journalism.  Yes, yes, we all know that media revenues are declining and even 100 year-old publications like The New Republic are teetering on the verge of extinction. For freelance journalists this has meant a general decline in word rates from a high in 1999 of $5/word at the top publications to as a low as $0.50/word at once-mighty institutions. Some publications now only pay their writers base on per-click, which as the venerable Erin Biba once said “is bullshit“.

But, I’m not writing to lament the decline of freelance revenues. I’m writing about something far more sinister: the way that publications today often demand that writers not only accept far less pay than they have received in the past, but also forfeit any rights over the work that they produce. While most new writers don’t think about much more than the pay they get for their words, a good story can go on to have a long life in several different mediums. The most lucrative of which are book, movie and TV deals. In those cases a writer could stand to make upwards of six figures for the research and narrative work that they put in up front.  Indeed, many of the best movies of the last ten years started out as magazine stories (Argo, Hurt Locker, Erin Brockovich, Adaptation, Coyote Ugly, Boogie Nights, Big Love to name just a few).

Late last month I got ahold of Newsweek’s standard contract that one of my correspondents sent me. Hidden on the second page was this clause:

Assignment and Ownership of Intellectual Property. Writer hereby understands and agrees that all Articles submitted to, and published by, Company under this Agreement shall be considered works for hire as contributions to a collective work. This confers on the Company all right, title and interest, including copyright, in and to the Article(s), throughout the world. Further, to the extend any intellectual property right does not pass pursuant to a work for hire, Writer hereby assigns to Company all right, title, interest and copyright in and to the Article(s), and all previously submitted articles of Writer. In addition to the foregoing, Writer grants the Company a perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free, paid-up non-exclusive transferable license under copyright to reproduce, distribute, display, perform, translate or otherwise publish individually or as part of a collective work your Article(s) and all previously submitted articles to the Company, in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which it can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device, including without limitation the rights to archive, republish, edit, repackage or revise any Article in any manner as Company sees fit. 

In short, this says that whatever you write for Newsweek is their property. It is as if they came up with the idea themselves, reported it in the field and typed it up on their own computers and the writer didn’t even exist. Work-for-hire contracts are always biased against an independent contractor, but this one is particularly onerous. Essentially this says that the writer has no copyright, no ownership, nothing whatsoever other than the $.50-$.75/word they were offering as “payment”. Never-mind that a typical investigative piece might take weeks, or even months to report, and that the final payment might well be below minimum wage, but as a writer you don’t even have the option to take the story idea that you developed and turn it into something bigger and potentially profitable. You can’t reprint it in a foreign publication, can’t sell the movie rights. Nothing.  It would be one thing if this language was in a contract for actual employment, where you might get healthcare, retirement benefits and business cards.

This sort of language makes my blood boil. I’ve seen things like this with other publications (Conde Nast, for instance, has some pretty harsh language around movie rights), but nothing quite as bad as this.

This, my gentle readers, is why the future of journalism is in such perilous standing. If magazines don’t pay journalists, and then also make it impossible for them to otherwise earn a real living off of their work then one day there will be no journalists to work with.

My advice to any journalist faced with a clause like this: don’t sign it. Post your story on your personal blog, or sell it to another publication.

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