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Battle Rages Over Electronic Publishing Rights
By Mark Leger
Freelance writers should be encouraged by the phenomenal growth
of electronic publishing over the past year. New medium means new
opportunities for cash-strapped writers. Wrong. At least for now.
There are few on-line publications that are willing to pay for original
content. And newspapers and magazines that reprint freelance articles
on the World Wide Web, on-line databases, and CD-ROMs have no intention
of paying freelancers extra for this right until it becomes profitable.
This last fact has outraged freelancers, and over the last year
groups like the Periodical Writers
Association of Canada (PWAC) have been lobbying publishers
to pay them for reprinted work. They say publishers are guilty of
copyright infringement if they don't. Staff writers at Canadian
magazines and newspapers don't own copyright over their work. Freelancers,
however, do own the rights to their material and after they publish
an article in one paper or magazine, they have the right to re-sell
it to another media outlet.
Electronic publishing rights wasn't an issue until last year. And
until groups like PWAC started to kick up a fuss, most publications
just assumed that they were buying those rights as well. For a few
years now, several publications have been available on CD-ROMs such
as Canadian Newsdisk, and on-line databases such as InfoGlobe
and Infomart. Many newspapers and magazines, including The
Globe and Mail and Saturday Night, now have World
Wide Web sites. Freelancers haven't received a dime for any of their
articles reprinted in any of these forms.
In the time since electronic copyright has become an issue, freelancers
and media outlets have been trying to negotiate contracts that are
amenable to everyone involved. That has proved to be a difficult,
if not impossible, task. The Globe released a contract last
Fall which asked freelancers to give up all copyright. They withdrew
this contract under protest from the freelance community. In the
next contract, they offered first print rights, which mean that
they would continue to pay extra if a piece was used in print again.
But they still insisted on free electronic rights so they could
include freelancer's work in their commercial database at no extra
cost to the paper.
Southam's contract asks freelancers to give up print and electronic
copyright. If a freelancer does a piece for the Gazette,
the company wants to able to reprint it free in other Southam papers
like the Edmonton Journal. It also wants the right to publish
it on CD-ROM and for its on-line database InfoMart at no
Publishers insist they're are not trying to short change the freelance
community. They say they can't pay them for electronic rights because
they say they are not making any money themselves from electronic
Gordon Fisher, vice-president of editorial at Southam, says his
company has spent at least $75 million dollars on electronic publishing
ventures and have made "absolutely no profits" so far.
"The reality is we're engaged in R & D in this area to
stay competitive," says Fisher. "All of our competitors
are involved and we're going to stay and see if it becomes (profitable)."
PWAC is asking freelancers to refuse to write for publications
that ask them to give up copyright on their work. This is going
to be a difficult pill for writers to swallow in a shrinking and
competitive market. In Quebec, writers are signing a Telemedia contract
relinquishing copyright because they simply can't afford to take
a stand and still expect to earn a living.
"It's a personal decision," says Biderman of the dilema
writers find themselves in. "Each person has to decide whether
they can afford to stand up for what's right." And many people,
she says, have learned to live with less in the effort to make the
publications pay them for their work.
Freelancers have the right to sue a publication for breach of copyright.
In the U.S. writers have launched several lawsuits against American
publications, and, in some cases, successfully won the right to
be paid for work reprinted in an electronic form. The New York-based
National Writers Union is currently in the midst of a copyright
suit against several U.S. news outlets, including the New York
Times and Newsweek. Late in April 12 freelancers launched
a suit against the Montreal Gazette.
Freelancers are also concerned about potential copyright violation
by television programs and has taken their fight to the Canadian
Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). On April
16, PWAC asked the Commission to make sure applicants for new cable
channels pay freelancers a fair wage. The organization singled out
Report on Business Television, MONEY, Southam Headline
News, and Outdoor Life. Electronic rights include broadcasting
rights, hence it's possible freelancers won't be paid extra if their
printed material is used on one of these channels.
Most media outlets can't predict when electronic publishing will
become profitable. On the World Wide Web, it's difficult to build
a subscriber base because users have gotten used to free access
to most sites. USA Today tried a couple of years ago to charge
by the hour for access to its site, but they were only able to attract
about 1,000 subscribers and soon dropped the fee. And for a variety
of reasons, attracting advertisers has proved equally difficult.
Fisher promises that when, and if, Southam's electronic businesses
become profitable, freelancers won't be left out in the cold "When
our electronic ventures have advertisers and subscribers, and we
are bringing in money," he says, "freelancers will get
more money for their work based on the size of our profits."
Biderman doesn't believe Fisher. She says publishers will try to
get away with paying freelancers nothing even when they begin to
reap huge profits.
"If they can take the (articles) for free now," she says,
"why would they pay later."