How I Got My Copyright Back in My Contract
It started with an assignment from a magazine for which I had previously written. I already had a contract with the publication, but their legal team reached out to me with another, saying that they couldn’t pay me if I didn’t sign an updated contract with them.
I should stop at this point in the story and remind you that I am no lawyer. Far from it, in fact. Beyond regularly reading contracts as part of my freelance work, the closest I’ve ever come to lawyering is writing for a legal trade publication. With that, please take what I say with a grain of salt.
I’ve never passed the bar, but I know a little bit. Enough to know that I need my copyright to my work. Too many times I’ve been coerced into signing an agreement that gives away all my rights forever and ever in media platforms not yet formed. Study Hall, a New York-based co-working space and collective for media professionals, has written about the increased use of intellectual property as a revenue stream, citing articles in WIRED and other longform articles that have been turned into movies, books or TV shows. The Columbia Journalism review has also covered how media companies are increasingly adopting these contracts.
As the Columbia Journalism Review reported May 2018, it’s critical for freelancers to know the difference between work-for-hire and licensing agreements. Work-for-hire agreements allow the publisher to retain the copyright to the work and do with it whatever it wants, but licensing agreements allow you to keep your copyright and potentially make additional income if the work becomes adapted into, say, a TV series, book or video game.
Initially, the aforementioned publishing company attempted to get me to sign a work-for-hire agreement that prevented me from writing about the subject for three months after the article was published as well as retained the copyright to my work for pretty much ever. Even for a non-lawyer like me, it felt as though I was between a rock and a hard place. Of course, I wanted the income and I wanted to maintain my relationship with the publication, but did I have to give up my future chances of income, too?
I explained to the publisher’s legal team that I intended to write about the topic again in a book one day, and that I wanted to retain the rights to my work. I was told, at first, that the publisher doesn’t do rights reversion, meaning that the company doesn’t transfer the rights back to the journalist after publishing the work.
So, I asked around to see if other journalists were successful in maintaining their copyright. As it turns out, they were. They were able to push back on the company’s non-compete clause and obtain a licensing agreement. After a couple of days passed, I obtained a licensing agreement from the publication’s legal department, indicating that after a defined period of time I’d have the right to option my work for development in future projects. If another entity wishes to option my work before that previously mentioned period ends, I’m entitled to additional compensation from the publisher.
This isn’t as much of a problem in content marketing, where you may have more flexibility or perhaps the ability to draft your own agreement. In news media, however, it’s rare to be able to get your own contract.
Yes, on some level, I’m happy about getting another (better?) contract, the negotiation process sometimes frustrates me. Of course, I know it’s business, but how fair is it for a large company to have the upper hand over independent contractors. And had I not had a network to turn to for guidance, I would’ve been talked out of income for work I produced for a media conglomerate. As a woman of color who occasionally writes about issues pertaining to people of color, I find it particularly disturbing that media companies are looking to cut off another revenue stream at a time when diverse voices are being financially pushed out of the industry. Still, one small step for me felt like a freelance victory…
What are your strategies for negotiating freelance contracts? Tell me in the comments or email me at email@example.com.