Electronic Wrongs

By Tusiani, Bea | American Journalism Review, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Electronic Wrongs


Tusiani, Bea, American Journalism Review


Mid-level freelance journalists who fuel the publishing industry are about to become the next endangered species thanks to increasing numbers of major publishers who are demanding they give up electronic rights to their work. Like the early generations of television and music writers who signed away their rights before knowing the future earnings potential of nightly reruns, videotapes, compact discs and CD-ROMs, today's generation of freelancers risks losing income not only through the vast network of electronic media, but in media yet to be invented.

Independent writers have never been so vulnerable, and publishers of high-profile magazines and newspapers are going in for the kill with contracts that usurp electronic rights and, in some instances, all rights, without extra payment.

According to copyright publishing laws that seem to have been written in the Dark Ages, this is legal. However, such contracts are not necessarily judicious in terms of fair use of a writer's work in modern times.

The ASJA Contracts Watch, the rights bulletin from the American Society of Journalists and Authors, lists the San Francisco Examiner, Reader's Digest, Hearst Magazines and the Los Angeles Times among many publications asking freelancers to sign contracts giving away their electronic rights. According to ASJA, even more stringent contracts requiring that writers relinquish all rights, including copyright, to their work, are being offered to freelancers by Better Homes and Gardens, Martha Stewart Living and the New York Times. Using freelance work, if not adequately compensated, is exploitive. Freelance journalists who write for newspapers are at the lowest end of the payscale. Simply put, the bread-and-butter of their independent operation has always relied heavily on the ability to resell articles to secondary markets. If these articles are now widely dispersed via the electronic media, no other publisher will want to buy them.

Other rights such as reprint rights, dramatic rights, serialization and foreign rights are standardly negotiated separately within the publishing industry. There is no reason why electronic rights should be treated differently. Companies that run or contribute to wire services and syndicates have the tools to keep track of where stories go.

There is a complacency on the part of well-known publishers like the New York Times, whose writers signed contracts without attempting to negotiate new terms. For the most part, many writers who were offered these agreements didn't have access to legal advice and were rushed into signing within three or four days. Some were afraid to lose their association with such a reputable publication.

Many who signed expressed discomfort at having done so. The following is a sampling of those expressions: "I'm not happy with the principle, it's unethical." "If the pay was better it might be more palatable." "There's no choice if you want to work for them. …

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