16 May 2006

Copyright issues

Yesterday, I was contacted bright and early (very early!) by a potential client who wanted me to write feature articles for a website. I sent some work samples and a CV and was asked for my rates. While I was calculating what to charge, based on time I'd need to spend doing the research as well as the writing, they rang me. A friendly, useful and optimistic conversation followed. We discussed rates and I asked for the upper end of what they were willing to pay. We agreed a fee per feature and the client said they'd e-mail me a transfer of copyright agreement. So far so good.

However, when the e-mail arrived, I felt very uncomfortable. The agreement was badly worded and, in effect, I was being asked to transfer all my intellectual property rights including the non-transferable ones. Also, there would be no byline - as every writer knows, getting credit for what you write is vital. Luckily for me, the beloved P was at home at that point as he was about to embark on a business trip. And he's a lawyer. And he does IPR. And contract law. So I got him to look it over. I also took some advice from some fellow journalists and the NUJ.

I mailed back, explaining why I wasn't happy with their proposed agreement and suggesting we use the standard NUJ confirmation of commission form instead, which is much clearer about both sides' rights and responsibilities. They weren't willing to sign a copy of this or accept one from me.

So I then suggested, on the advice I had sought, that if I wouldn't get a byline, I'd accept a biog on a contributors page. And, more importantly, I suggested that I'd be willing to hand over full copyright for my work if they were willing to pay me double the agreed fee. I thought this fair exchange.

Today, the client said there was no chance of doubling my fee, so I pulled out and suggested they recommission the job.

There was a huge principle at stake here - namely, my right to be associated with my work and to be fairly paid for it. I gather from the correspondence other journalists are more willing to hand over their work in its entirety (and presumably for less money than I negotiated initially as well). More fool them. I myself was not willing to cave in under pressure.

My portfolio is a demonstration of my skills and thus also my worth. If I can't get a credit for what I have done, I can't prove I did it. Any freelance could lift an unbylined article off the web and claim they wrote it for the publisher. But why should anyone believe that? There's no proof it's your work. And certainly no proof that it's mine.

I've just turned down a considerable amount of regular weekly income for this principle. I have no regrets. Money is not everything. But holding out for what's right is.

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