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Four reasons to resist Bauer’s grab

WHY should we resist contracts that grab all rights in our work - such as that which magazine publsher Bauer is currently trying to impose? In particular, when we feel less secure - as a member of a writers' discussion group felt when saying: "those of us who are quite young in the game can't really take the 'sod them' option." An older hand replied:

I don't want to appear to be condescending or pulling rank by dint of being (alas) no longer young, but I would like to respectfully point out that younger people have much more to lose over signing up than us old farts do - and you absolutely can do that.

First, if you're nearer the beginning of your career than the end, and agree to sell all rights now, that means that you won't be able to earn additional income from the majority of work you do over the course of your lifetime.

Except in exceptional circumstances contracts of this type are not retrospective, so will only kick in from the date of signing. Those of us who've worked for longer will therefore have back catalogues of work built up over that time which aren't affected by the current grab, and which we're still free to derive further income from.

Such income may be minimal, but it does exist - one member reported to the NUJ London Freelance Branch meeting last week that he'd earned more money in January from re-selling one ten-year-old feature to a US magazine than from all other work that month.

Had he, at the beginning of his career, been presented with an all-rights contract and felt his need for the exposure and the immediate work outweighed other considerations and signed up, he would have had a dramatically reduced income in January 2010. So something you feel you can't fight today might well leave you unable to pay your mortgage in 15 years' time. Unforeseen consequences, and all that.

Second, rights grabs of this kind rely on the publisher being able to tap in to a pool of keen young writing talent to plug the gaps that will materialise as extant contributors refuse to sign up. If the talented young writers are able to hold their nerve and agree that their work is worth at least the same as the work of their older peers (which it absolutely is), the company will be forced either to dramatically lower the quality of their product by further stretching in-house writing reserves and accepting work from beyond the pool of writers they would otherwise consider, or they would have to admit that their desire for all-out ownership needed some tweaking and they will be forced to sit down and negotiate something fairer.

Third, and this is going to sound really patronising but please bear with me: while age and experience may bring a certain degree of self-belief and fortitude when it comes to standing up to this kind of thing, please don't make the mistake of assuming that it's an easy option for someone to take just because they've been doing it a while. Whether you're renting a flat and living on your own or the sole breadwinner in a mortgaged-up house full of kids, the balance between paying your way and not is extremely delicate. Few of us will truly be able to afford to lose work, and that holds true just as strongly for the oldest and most experienced among us as for those only just beginning their careers as journalists.

Fourth, you have to - I'm afraid - also consider not just those who've gone before and the people affected at present but also those who will come along afterwards. If we don't collectively take a stand now, then the beginners of tomorrow will come into a journalism realm in which all-rights is a non-negotiable norm, and earning an acceptable living from writing over a medium or long term is going to be impossible. We all know how hard it was to get in and make an impression and earn a bit of money from doing this - by not standing up to it now, we're making it even harder for tomorrow's newcomers to journalism. We owe it to them as much as to ourselves to stand up to this sort of thing.

Publishers rely on and want you to feel like you have no option. They've got you where they want you if you're thinking that you need them more than they need you. Without good, knowledgeable, capable writing, they don't have a product to sell, and they know it; just as, without their marketing expertise and ability to sell advertising space as well as physical copies of the magazine, we don't have a means of deriving income from our work. It's a mutual dependency, and that's why, whoever you are at whatever stage of your career, you have as much of an ability to wield power in that relationship as anyone else. Don't let them browbeat you into thinking otherwise - at least not until you've given it a good hard shot.

Last modified: 25 Feb 2010 - © 2009 contributors
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