By: Steve Outing
Freelancers who write for the Boston Globe received a new contract in the mail in late December. It was only a few lines long, but its brevity disguised the impact it would have on the independents who maintain relationships with the New York Times Co.-owned daily.
In a letter from Globe managing editor for administration Al Larkin Jr., the new contract read:
“From time to time you will write articles at our request for The Boston Globe. You agree that your articles will be ‘works for hire’ for copyright purposes. Consequently The Boston Globe shall own all rights, including copyright, in your articles and may reuse them with no additional payment being made to you.”
In an accompanying letter from Larkin, the Globe executive (who was unavailable for comment in this article due to a family emergency) told the freelancers that if they wished to resell an article they wrote for which the Globe owned the copyright, they only have to call his office “and we will be happy to license the rights back to you for those purposes.”
That letter went out to some 3,000 writers, artists and photographers, according to Globe spokesman Rick Gulla. About 600 freelancer writers have to this date signed and returned the contract, and Globe editors have received about 75 complaints.
Many freelancers were taken aback by the letter. Formerly, the Globe had followed the standard industry practice of buying only first-publication rights, allowing authors to retain copyright and control their works’ subsidiary uses. But because of the Globe’s online ventures, specifically its Boston.com Web site, the newspaper wants full rights so that it can freely publish freelance work commissioned by the Globe on its electronic ventures.
Several of the Globe’s freelance writers subsequently formed the Boston Globe Freelancers Association (BGFA) in order to join forces and fight the new contract; it now has more than 100 members. Early this month, a broad coalition of writers’ groups joined with the BGFA over the issue, including the Authors Guild, National Writers Union and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
(The Globe is only one example of publishers — more so in the magazine industry than newspapers — asking for complete control over freelancers’ work as a result of wanting to publish freelance work on online services. Gulla says the Globe’s actions are a fairly typical newspaper industry reaction to the advent of online services; BGFA members disagree.)
Tom Duffy, a freelancer who writes primarily for the Globe’s business section and also for People magazine, and a founder of BGFA, says he has no objections to freelance work appearing on the Globe’s Web site, and his group does not want to interfere with the ability of the Globe to enter into electronic ventures. “We’re reasonable people,” he says. “We understand that the playing field has been altered. We’re willing to discuss and negotiate how our business relationship with the Globe will change because of that.”
What’s troubling, Duffy says, is the way the Globe handled the situation — by simply mailing out the contract and expecting writers to sign away rights to their works. “The Globe has always been a wonderful paper to write for,” he says. “They’ve always treated us well” until now.
What especially vexes the writers is that their work will be included in the Globe’s searchable archive, available on the Boston.com Web site at a charge of $2.95 per article downloaded by the Internet user. Under the new contract, freelancers would not be entitled to a share of that money. The feeling among most writers is that they should get a portion of that money.
The Globe view
Globe spokesman Gulla says that the company is bearing considerable expenses in developing and maintaining the electronic archive, and is not making any money yet, despite the $2.95 per article fee. Of course, that doesn’t address the future issue of when that is a profitable business — and under the new contract, freelancers won’t be entitled to a share.
The Globe’s position, says Gulla, is that online services have created a new business environment for publisher and writer, and “we realize that not everyone is going to be happy” about how terms must be renegotiated.
The primary rationale for the contract requiring writers to sign away their copyright is to remedy a troubling situation for the Globe, says Gulla. No freelance material is included on the Web site currently, and freelance material cannot appear on the Globe archive that is accessible via the Web site under the old freelancers’ contract. But the Globe’s traditional electronic archives do contain everything that is printed in the newspaper. Without the right to include freelancers’ work on the Web site archive, the Globe is faced with having to maintain two separate archives, at considerable expense.
The newspaper’s position, says Gulla, is that the Globe pays freelancers well, and “we are simply asking for the right” to publish their work on the Globe’s Web site without additionally compensating the writers.
The paper seems not to have a firm policy regarding freelancers who refuse to sign the new contract. If a writer refuses to sign the new contract, that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to continue writing for the newspaper, Gulla says. What exactly are the implications for those who don’t sign seems unclear. The newspaper’s desire, he says, is to establish a policy where “we are dealing with all our freelancers on the same level.”
A delicate balance
The Globe situation is being faced by newspapers (and magazines) around the world who are entering the online publishing environment. Most are not making money online yet, so the arguments remain academic. Freelancers working under contracts that give them a share of electronic revenues generated from their works shouldn’t expect to see significant income in the short term.
The Globe’s position on this issue seems extreme, and I hope that it will come to negotiate an acceptable contract with its writers. A reasonable solution, in my view, is to write a specific contract that grants the Globe the right to publish freelance work on its Web site and other electronic ventures — including the surcharged newspaper online archive on the Web — for an extra fee or royalty above normal freelance rates. This might be a 5% premium for granting electronic rights, for example. Such a royalty can be low today, when online ventures by newspapers aren’t profitable, but be renegotiated between management and writers’ groups when that situation changes. Several magazines operating online already follow this model.
I do not see a rational reason for the Globe or any other publisher to demand exclusive rights to freelancers’ works. Authors, to be sure, will fight this unseemly trend with vigor and persistence.
Contact: Tom Duffy, BGFA, firstname.lastname@example.org
Interactive Newspapers conference daily coverage
Today is the start of the Interactive Newspapers conference in Houston, Texas, sponsored by Editor & Publisher. This is the premier international meeting for the newspaper new media industry, and it should be an exciting few days. Early indications are that this will be the largest Interactive Newspapers meeting ever. More than 60 companies are exhibiting at the show, a substantial increase over last year. (The conference runs through Saturday.)
Editor & Publisher Interactive is covering the conference on a special “Conference Daily News” Web site. E&P Web editorial director Hoag Levins and editors from E&P magazine will be offering up coverage of the daily events.
The special daily conference Web site, which can be found by going to the main E&P home page, is being solely sponsored by New York-based online classifieds company AdOne.
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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at email@example.com
The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company