Do newspapers normally ask for all rights from freelancers?
January 4, 2008 11:31 AM   Subscribe

What are the usual practices of major (and minor) print publications when entering into contracts with freelance writers and photographers (stringers)? The publication can certainly force (or request) stringers to enter into contracts that say their articles are a "work for hire" or purchase "all rights" in the material. Is this the norm now or do only the major newspapers do this?

I see there have been previous questions about the default provisions (i.e., how a freelance work is treated in the absence of a contract), and lots of advice to artists and authors to sell away as few of their rights as possible.

I would like to know whether it currently is it the norm for a publication to ask freelance writers for "all rights" instead of only a limited bundle of rights (such as "First North American serial rights").

Bonus points for distinguishing between major publications and small-town newspapers. For instance, in 2004 the New York Times sent a new contract to its freelance photographers saying their work would be a work for hire, but grants rights back to the photographer. Coverage here. Have other publications followed this practice?
posted by QuantumMeruit to Law & Government (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Two things that I can say to this:

First, I haven't really encountered a "norm" past first rights. Every additional provision is essentially unique to the publication (a lot of folks want electronic in perpetuity now, but not everyone).

Second, as far as I know, "all rights" won't hold up in court—the specific rights have to be enumerated or dealt with in some way, even if under a broader aegis of default work-for-hire or default sale.

There are also state laws about what can constitute a work for hire, and what can't (generally, freelancers can't be work-for-hire because WFH implies an ongoing employment relation).

I will have you note, however, that my experience with contracts isn't anywhere near extensive, that I have a journalism background and not a law background, and that state laws and international laws often affect what is able to be covered by contract.
posted by klangklangston at 1:49 PM on January 4, 2008

Oh, and small publications are almost always more schizophrenic about rights than large places, though I've heard terrible things about the standard Newsweek contract. Most of the small places I've worked haven't had a written contract at all, only an understanding of first print rights, but I've had a couple claim that they wanted all rights in perpetuity for every distribution medium extant or created in the future. Those places are almost universally dicks about paying on time, and generally are small websites more than print.

Oh, and I had a colleague who had an interview with a paper in Saginaw, where they gave her a couple hours to bang out a piece for their city desk. They then ran it, didn't give her the job, and she had to pitch a bitch about getting paid for it. They had claimed that by consenting to an interview, she had transfered the rights to them as a work-for-hire. She finally got the, what, $100 or so out of them for the piece, but they were total dicks about it and it took a legal threat. I mention this just to let you know that small places often have legal understandings that are not supported by law (nor, particularly, ethics).
posted by klangklangston at 1:55 PM on January 4, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, klangklangston. It doesn't surprise me at all that the smaller publications are not up-to-speed on the law. Probably a factor of not having in-house lawyers (or even frequent interaction with outside counsel) like the big boys.

Incidentally, the "all rights" language I was using was my attempt to capture the gist of a contract that requires the stringer to assign his copyright to the publication. I believe that a lot of websites use that type of language, but I'm just not up-to-speed on what the norms are in the print world.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 4:48 PM on January 4, 2008

I worked on three Midwestern daily newspapers (60,000 circulation, 25,000, and 5,000), and was the editor of one of them, during my journalism career. Even on the smallest paper there were no news or photography stringers; it was all done in house. Columnists, though, wrote and were paid and there were no contracts. Each of the papers asserted one-time rights only. Some of those columnists later published books of their columns, and the newspaper was pleased to trumpet that a little ("as seen in this newspaper").

Not all small publications are out to screw writers. Some are, though, as are some larger organizations. It's best to have a dotted line to sign on. Remember Samuel Goldwyn's Law of Contracts: "A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on."
posted by bryon at 5:00 PM on January 4, 2008

I had a long-term gig with an alt-weekly paper as a freelancer and never signed anything, ever. I had a friendly relationship with the editors and if I didn't hear from them, I got in touch to inquire about what's coming up. I worked quite steadily for a couple of years this way.
posted by loiseau at 7:04 PM on January 4, 2008

« Older Dentist/Oral surgeon recommendations in the...   |   Name that tune: I drive cars that shift themselves... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.