It is important for freelancers to be able to generate new story ideas, but it is as equally important for freelancers to know how to protect their own work. In yesterday's #ConnectChat, Randy Dotinga, freelance writer and vice president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, discussed what freelancers should look for in a contract, the meaning of copyright, as well as information about ASJA'a annual conference coming up next month. You can read a recap of the chat here:
Can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself?
I’m VP of the American Society of Journalists & Authors (bit.ly/10RXclB), a 1,200-member organization of professional writers. I’ve been a freelance writer for 15 years and was a newspaper reporter before that.
Is a contract necessary with each assignment and do most clients offer them?
In almost all cases, writers should have a good contract that protects not only your rights but you personally. Most publications -- magazines, newspapers, websites -- do offer contracts, although very small publications might not. Small publications like a weekly newspaper or a small website may not be sophisticated enough to offer contracts.
What should you watch out for in a contract?
A good contract should provide protection for you regarding your pay and your rights to your work. Be very careful of contract terms that require you to pay all legal costs if there's a lawsuit, like a libel suit. Watch out for terms like “work for hire” and “all rights” that mean you're giving away significant future value.
If the contract contains terms like “work for hire” and “all rights,” how do you still do the work without giving rights away?
You can negotiate, try to get those terms removed. Negotiation over contracts is perfectly acceptable and routine.
What does "work for hire" mean?
That means the publication owns your work. You can’t resell it or sell movie rights or anthology rights or anything. It’s a bit like you’re on staff. If you’re a newspaper staff writer, your stories belong to the paper, not you. “Work for hire” isn’t necessarily bad. You may not need the right to resell your work, but beware of what you’re giving away
How can a writer ensure that they always get full credit such as financial, etc.? For example: Your article appears in a magazine and a film studio wants to make a film out of it, how do you make sure to get all the rewards?
In order to be able to sell your story to a movie studio (or even a print anthology) you must retain rights. When you write a freelance article, it’s like building a house -- you can sell it or rent it out. If you sell it, the new owner can do whatever they want with it and make any profits. The same thing with stories. But it’s not just an issue for movies. For instance, your story may appear in an anthology, and you’ll want to get paid for that.
What clauses should you always have in your contract?
Make sure your contract is clear about payment: Are you paid when the story is filed? When it's published? You may have a spot of bother if you're paid when story is published (“upon publication”). It could take months or even years. Also make sure to specify what rights you are assigning to the publication. Are they renting or owning the story? For example: The contract may specify First North American Serial Rights. That means they have rights to publish first time here.
What exactly is copyright?
It’s essentially property rights: You created something, you own it, and you decide what happens to it. Everything you write, from emails to grocery lists, is automatically copyrighted. You don't need to do anything. If you want greater protections (and more damages if your rights are violated), you can register with the Feds.
Do you recommend copyrighting every published article/story?
It’s pretty rare for freelancers to register their works because it’s a hassle, but it provides extra protection and extra damages. If someone steals your work, you can win major money in court if you registered your copyright.
Worst case scenario -- what happens if your article/story gets published and you don't have it copyrighted?
Even if you haven’t registered your work, it’s still copyrighted, so no one can publish it without your permission. Even if an article is not registered, you can sue for copyright violation. But damages can be much higher if registered.
As a freelancer, how do you differentiate yourself from the crowd, i.e., websites, portfolio work?
Talent, persistence and luck are the keys to success. You may succeed with 1 or 2, but all 3 are best! Persistence can bring you luck. Network and engage with other journalists (although websites/portfolios do help).
What's the worst thing a freelancer can do with regards to protecting/not protecting their work?
Freelancers will often sign “work for hire” or “all right” contracts. But you should never sign an “indemnification clause.” That's a clause that makes the writer responsible for paying any legal costs related to the story. As a freelancer, don't assume that you're protected against a libel suit because you won't libel anyone. Someone can still file a frivolous lawsuit against you and cost you thousands in legal fees and endless agony
Can freelancers ever negotiate kill-fees?
Kill fees are payments that writers get if their story is "killed," and they’re typically partial, like half. We believe writers should get full payment for their work. Fie on kill fees! But yes, they can be negotiated.
Should you be surprised if a client doesn't know much about contracts/copyright law? What do you do if they don't?
You could go without a contract. In that case, your rights remain with you and there's no risk of giving them away. But you may wish to protect yourself by finding a sample contract online and asking the client to sign that.
What is "fair use"?
Fair use refers to copying part of a copyrighted work (like a story or movie) for limited purposes like commenting on it. For example, I write book reviews for The Christian Science Monitor and will quote book excerpts. That is an example of fair use. However, there’s big debate over the limits of fair use: when it’s OK to copy part of something and when it’s copyright violation.
Where can you brush up on information about copyright law and permissions?
The federal government has a handy FAQ at 1.usa.gov/1ifCVC8. You can also register copyright for your articles through that website.
The U.S. Copyright Office has plenty of PDFs available: www.copyright.gov/title17
How can you protect yourself against libel?
Even if you don’t libel anyone, you can still be sued for libel. If you see indemnification clause in a contract, bring it up. It’s routine to negotiate contracts. Ask if you can strike the clause so the client is responsible for legal fees. Sometimes clients will have a special alternative contract with better terms for writers who complain about the main one.
Can you please go into how Google is now copying books?
Google has scanned millions of books without permission from authors. They say they're offering snippets via fair use. But many writers believe their books shouldn't be scanned without their permission and that this subverts fair use. We're concerned about plans Google will sell the books without writer permission. There's also a dispute over what to do about books whose authors can't be found.
What are the financial downfalls of being a freelancer and how do you stay on your feet, especially with regards to health insurance?
Freelancing is a great job in many ways. Flexibility, variety and working at home are nice perks. For certain personality types, it’s great to be miles (even thousands of miles) away from your bosses (or so I’ve heard). But it can be isolating, stressful (the hustle is endless) and financially difficult. In regard to insurance, the health care reform has made huge difference. Self-employed people with pre-existing conditions can now get coverage.
How does ASJA work with freelancers needing help with self-employment and copyright issues?
We are a non-profit membership organization with a foundation arm that works to educate all writers. We hold regular conferences and web seminars on a variety of topics related to surviving and thriving as writers. The Web seminars are free to all, as are our monthly ASJA monthly magazines. (bit.ly/1ifEboY) . We also offer assistance regarding contracts, a mentoring program and an emergency fund to assist writers in need. Perhaps most importantly, we go to court when necessary to protect writer rights.
Please tell us about the annual conference coming up next month in NYC. Who should attend?
ASJA's Annual Writers Conference is from April 24-26 at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan. Here are details: bit.ly/1ifEmk5. We expect 650+ journalists and other writing pros: Editors, agents, publishers, and more. Public is invited April 25, 26. We’ll have dozens of sessions on art and business of independent writing: books and freelancing. It's a myth that it's impossible to make it as a freelancer or author. Our 1,200 members know that's false. Success requires connections and talent and savvy. You're on your own on talent, but we can help with the rest! Also, thanks to a generous grant from Amazon, we are also offering scholarships to beginning independent journalists.
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