Journal: News & Comment

Monday, November 06, 2000
# 11:46:00 PM:

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Freelancers ask, "Just what are we selling, anyway?"

Freelance writers and the New York Times (as well as some other publications) have long held a simmering dispute about what the NYT is allowed to do with articles sold to it by freelance writers -- people like me (well, okay, I've never been in the Times). Now, the argument is heading to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Essentially, the writers say that when they sell an article for publication, it is only for print, and that if the publisher wants to add it to an electronic database or publish it on a Web site, the writer should get additional payment. The publishers disagree, saying that databasing an article is the kind of "revision" copyright law allows.

I'm not sure where I stand on this one. Certainly, it's nice if freelancers get paid for each different medium their work appears in -- as a freelancer, I'd certainly like the money. On the other hand, having the complete archives of the New York Times available, even years later, in electronic form, is certainly handy for people in general -- including other writers doing research.

The lawsuit apparently deals with articles written between 1990 and 1993. I hope that by now the publishers and freelancers have worked out their contract language so the status of database and Web archives is clear. If not, someone's been spending too much time in court and not enough writing.

Incidentally, in case you didn't know, the reason this kerfuffle involves only freelancers is because copyright law -- not just in the United States, but in most jurisdictions worldwide -- clearly dictates that any writing work done by an employee or contractor is the property of the publisher, not the person who did the writing.

The most interesting recent example of that law at work is the famous column-turned-speech (turned-pop-song) "Wear Sunscreen." Originally written by Chicago Tribune staffer Mary Schmich in 1997, it became an Internet urban legend when falsely attributed to author Kurt Vonnegut as a commencement speech at MIT (he's never given one there -- Schmich's or anyone else's). Later, the column was transformed into a hit song, but Schmich wasn't entitled to any songwriting royalties. Those belong to the Tribune, which had no obligation to share them with her, since it had paid her staffer's salary when she wrote the piece originally.

The lesson? Working freelance is risky and frustrating and involves a lot of paperwork -- but you maintain ultimate control of your work. In my case, freelance pieces I create then then sell after I work on them are mine. Anything I write for my day-job employer or as part of a contract assignment belongs to whoever hired me. Worth keeping in mind for me. Maybe for you too.


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