Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Unfair contracts – evidence needed

Have you ever been presented with a contract transferring all your rights, for the entire universe, for ever, by all publishing means including those not yet invented, then told “Sign this, or else!”? If you are a freelance journalist, or indeed any other kind of self-employed creator of intellectual property, the likely answer is ‘Yes’. What’s more, there are many in government and industry who say this is perfectly fair, and indeed the playing field is tilted in your favour, since you can refuse to sign, and the publisher (or whatever) will then be deprived of your excellent services. The fact that you may also lose your livelihood, your home and your starving family is almost irrelevant. In the trade, the action is called ‘rights grabbing’, and it’s found in most other creative industries, such as music, entertainment, photography and book publishing. I’ve suffered myself in this way, indeed very recently, up against one of the largest technical and scientific publishers in the world.

What can creators do about this situation? For a start, they’ve recognised that the problem of unfair contracts is not confined to a single industry, like freelance journalism, but is general and widespread. Secondly, that their resources – in lobbying, PR, legal assistance and especially financial backing – will never match those of major international corporations or even their smaller relations. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, that happy creators are better creators and more productive creators who, if kept happy, will deliver even greater profits to their employers and exploiters. That means really fair contracts, with employers not even trying to secure greater rights or more extensive licences than are actually needed. Our campaign must therefore fight proverbial massed sledgehammers with the delicacy and effectiveness of a surgeon’s scalpel.

A joint committee, comprising representatives of many creators’ organisations (including myself for the CIoJ), has been quietly working on these truly massive problems for some time. Its particular current problem is gathering evidence of unfair, onerous and exploitative contracts to put to the government, Intellectual Property Office, individual MPs and other opinion-makers.

You can help

Have you been faced with an unfair contract, calling on you to sign away all your rights in an article, a book or anything else, for the world, the galaxy or the universe, and even to waive all your moral rights (which are important, but do you know what they are)? Under duress, did you actually sign? Did you refuse and, if so, what was the result?

Whatever, we need your help. Please send me any examples you may have of unfair contracts, or even unfair clauses in otherwise sensible documents, for our vitally important Evidence Dossier. Your name and affiliation will not be passed on, and the document itself will be anonymised to hide its origin.

The actual campaign, details of which are necessarily under wraps, is not yet under way, since we are still in the evidence-gathering stage, but it will happen sooner and with more chance of success if we can gather more evidence. Please send yours, no matter how small or large, to me, Ken Brookes, at Head Office. The sooner the better. And receive your own thanks, as well as mine, for your help, not just to journalists but to all self-employed creators.

By the way, the document that I was recently asked to sign, under “otherwise you will never work for us again” duress, consisted of four pages of small print composed by American lawyers for unpaid academic contributors. After about four weeks of tough negotiations, I conceded by email exchange an additional right that through my goodwill they already had in practice, and they agreed to pay a modest but useful amount more per published page. The final contract revision took less than five minutes and about a dozen words. Nevertheless, I don’t recommend my actions generally, unless you are extremely confident in your abilities (or mad).

Kenneth J A Brookes
CIoJ Copyright Representative