All together to tame the Beeb

THE NUJ has teamed up with other unions to challenge the BBC over its attitude to copyright.

Over the past two to three years, the BBC has grown ever more aggressive in demanding all rights from the writers and journalists who write, research, record and produce radio talks and features. It has got to the point where some contributors have been turned away when they are not prepared to sign away all rights for a single fee - and a fee that has failed to keep up with the cost of living.

Repeat fees have been abolished in favour of a bizarre system under which an additional 75 per cent is paid "where the BBC is certain that a contribution will be repeated" but not "if a repeat is not envisaged".

This leads to the absurd situation where an item that, in the event, is never repeated sometimes attracts the extra payment; but an item that is repeatedly repeated gets no additional payment simply because the repeats were not "envisaged" at the time of the commission.

The situation is now even worse, with the BBC streaming material over the internet. In effect this means countless repeats plus worldwide publication - neither of which the BBC could get away with without its "all rights" grab.

The NUJ, along with the Writers' Guild, the Society of Authors and the broadcasting union BECTU, has been patiently meeting and negotiating with the BBC on these points for over two years - to no avail. The four unions have now re-established the "Freelance Consortium" which several years ago was able to negotiate binding agreements with the BBC covering all radio talks and features.

At a meeting on 15 November 1999 the BBC tabled a ludicrously inadequate offer. Its offensiveness can best be conveyed by reproducing it in full:

Notwithstanding the provisions of Clause 2 below the BBC agrees to give consideration to any reasonable request made by you sooner than 6 months after first transmission to use your contributions in a way which does not in the BBC's sole opinion conflict with the BBC's requirements and in the event of the BBC agreeing to such request it shall be on terms as the BBC shall in its sole discretion determine.

So you would have to ask the BBC for its gracious permission to re-use your own material, with the BBC having the complete right to refuse and, if it feels like it, charging you for the privilege. (And that "concession" was offered only for features over five minutes.)

All four unions rejected the proposal out of hand and gave notice of a public campaign to reverse the BBC's all rights grab - something the corporation would never dare to impose on actors and musicians.

Unless there is a major change of heart you can expect the campaign to start gathering pace early in the year. Our aim will be to force the BBC to allow all contributors to retain their rights, with licences for specific uses and payments directly related to the uses made of the material.

The four unions are planning to brief Westminster, European, Scottish and Welsh MPs and mobilise members to give the BBC a taste of its own medicine. We will also be examining UK and European competition legislation to see if the BBC is abusing its monopoly position to impose unfair terms on small businesses and individual contractors.

If you are a BBC contributor, please let me know, and send in recent examples of any contracts you have been asked to sign.

Jan/Feb 2000
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Last modified: 12 December 1999
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