On protecting freelance pitches
Last week, I hosted a panel on behalf of the Chicago News Guild’s Working Journalists the unit featuring lawyers in freelance writers. During the panel, one of the many topics discussed was copyright protection over one’s work as well as the theft of freelance pitch ideas. Of course, you cannot copyright an idea. However, once a work is fixed, it is under copyright, per the U.S. Copyright Office.
This is an important point, because theft of ideas has come up in multiple online and in person discussions among freelancers this week. On the outside looking in, it’s difficult for a freelancer to determine whether or not an idea they pitched was actually stolen or was already being worked on by the staff writers. You cannot know for sure unless you have evidence from someone within the company.
Nevertheless, I have heard multiple freelancers share their horror stories about having their ideas written by staff writers. How do freelancers combat this?
For one thing, information is power. Multiple writers have bravely disclosed instances in which they pitched a story to a publication and that publication published a story which had a very similar premise to their story idea. such behavior could get writers blacklisted, but it’s also important for freelancers to share information with one another so asked to figure out which publications are taking ideas from freelancers and assigning them to staff writers.
Earlier in my career, I saw a version of a story I pitched appear in a popular general interest magazine. Ultimately, my story, a piece on black-owned banks, was published in Pacific Standard, but it still stung to see a watered down version of my story in what I thought was a dream publication. That experience drove me to pursue stories that couldn’t be easily done by staffers in some office in New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. I can’t say for sure whether the publication “stole” my idea, but I remember how my heavy head hung low in disappointment after I sat at my computer at my part-time job skimming the thin online piece I had hoped to add to my portfolio. I knew then that I had to change my tactics.
As is likely the case with other freelancers, I try to emphasize why I am the ideal person to write a story for the publication I’m pitching. Maybe it’s my location. Perhaps I have a connection to the potential sources or I have obtained FOIA request documents that will ultimately take the publication too long to collect otherwise. Even then, the publication could choose to pass on your idea and try to do some version of it on their own.
In this environment, it’s difficult to discern who is trustworthy or not. I’m pretty careful about the people who know about my freelance projects. Sometimes, I’ve walked away from job applications because they require applicants to submit story ideas to be considered for publication. As the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out, freelancers can be especially wary of editorial tests, because their story ideas can be taken and they may be passed over for a job, thus leaving them without the presumably steady income of full-time employment and sporadic income of freelance commissions.
Many freelancers have seen their ideas reported out by staff writers. It doesn’t get any easier to accept, but I’m comforted by the fact that freelancers are speaking out about the mistreatment they are experiencing. The more we can share information with each other the better we can protect ourselves against unfair practices. At some point, though, it’s important for editors to do the right thing and become internal advocates for their contributors. If they see something going wrong, whether it’s taking freelance ideas or slow payments, put a stop to it both for the sake of your contributors and the overall reputation of your publication.
As newsrooms continue to shrink and consolidate, they will become more reliant upon freelancers. And as any seasoned business owner would tell you, it behooves companies to treat their vendors with respect. I see so many freelancers agonizing over how to build and maintain solid relationships with editors. I can only hope that staff editors are considering the same thing.
Have you seen a staff writer or editor write a piece that you originally pitched? How did you handle it? Tell me in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.