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You don’t ask, you don’t get

A BRANCH member recently started to get a regular writing work with a well-known high-brow magazine run by an independent publisher. There was no contract for the first article except for a confirmation email from the editor, and payment by cheque was trouble-free.

When the author received the proofs for their next article to look at before they went to press, however, they came with a "standard" contract to sign, stating that the author surrendered copyright in all media for "the duration". As the duration wasn't stated, the freelance emailed the editorial assistant who'd forwarded the contract, asking what they meant by "the duration": did they mean First British Serial rights? This query was an opening gambit whose purpose was to find out how sorted, and how difficult, the publisher was likely to be, and to get a feeling whether there was any chance of getting away with saying, no, you don't get all rights, I keep copyright.

Imagine the surprise of said freelance when a reply followed shortly afterwards, offering as an alternative a license to publish, explicitly stating that the author retained copyright. The freelance hadn't even said they wouldn't accept an apparent all rights grab, they'd just enquired what exactly the publisher was asking them for.

Back in the 1990s, a freelance reportedly got a succession of three different contracts, each nicer than the last, as a result of querying the contract that Condé Nast had sent them.

Is this rarer in today's accountant- and lawyer-driven media groups? Let us know. It clearly remains important always to question contracts and not just throw your hands up in surrender.

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