Keeping your rights: a success story

THE NUJ is always urging freelances to hang on to their copyright whatever those nasty corporate contracts often demand: the benefits include the right to re-sell the work for a second outing (you never know what will attract interest later) and to be sure of geting paid your share of the revenue from photocopying (see page 4). It's nice to pass on a real-life story proving it can (usually) be done - with how-to thrown in.

This came up on an NUJ freelance network. A new freelance had just written a small piece, fee about a hundred quid, for an IPC mag; and back came an all-rights and total liability contract which would apply to all work he might do for the company till death did them part. An accompanying note added that he'd have to sign to get paid. "What shall I do?" the new freelance asked colleagues. "Any chance of getting out from under?"

Oh yes, came the reply from several (not ancient) veterans of contractual crapola.

One pointed out that, regardless, the company couldn't not pay when the work had fulfilled the commission and been publishedL QED, it's the law, etc.

Another reported he'd had the contract for his first piece of IPC work, had discussed it with the commissioning editor (who hadn't mentioned it when agreeing brief and fee) and was amiably advised "cross out and initial everything you don't agree with, sign it and send it". He returned the document, almost black with deletions, and the company has subsequently paid for all work without further ado.

A third said she took a more direct route: "When IPC asked me to surrender my rights, my children and the equity in my house, I emailed as follows:

Dear XXXX, Thanks for sending over the enclosed contract. I've returned it unsigned because I don't sell all rights in my work. However, I am willing to issue IPC a licence to use the work in the magazine for the agreed fee. If you want other usages I'm happy to discuss it. The terms on the attached document were not made clear to me when I was commissioned, and as the work has now been submitted and published, these terms cannot legally form part of the contract. I will require the agreed payment to be made without signing the enclosed document. Please contact me if you have any queries."

The company paid up. And when the new freelance borrowed much of the wording and the politely assertive tone of third freelance's letter to IPC, the mag pronounced themselves "happy" to ignore the contract and pay up.

There's no science on this, but freelance discussion suggests a substantial majority of freelance journalists - writers, photographers and others - are retaining copyright in the substantial majority of work. Keep at it and you're in good and numerous company.

© Phil Sutcliffe

Last modified: 17 Apr 2011 - © 2011 contributors
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