The Chicken Little Argument
by Jim Morrison, President
American Society of Journalists and Authors
June 26, 2001
Newspaper publishers like Arthur Sulzberger Jr. are using the same phrase — “everyone loses” — to characterize the Supreme Court’s decision reaffirming freelancers’ copyright. They claim the historical record will be subverted because they have chosen to delete stories from their databases rather than pay freelancers. That’s ridiculous. I hope writers and readers won’t buy into their Chicken Little argument.
First, stories will remain available in print and on microfiche, as they have been for decades. Second, writers never demanded that their stories be deleted. They simply asked that they properly be compensated for their use. The New York Times and other publishers could have avoided this showdown simply by paying writers their fair share. As the Times and other publishers know, the stories they intend to delete have value. Some smart database operator is going to collect these stories and offer freelancers their proper slice of the pie. He might call this database All the News The Times Deleted.
Let’s remember, the only person not making money from databases is the writer who created the work in the first place. To readers, publishers are whining about loss of the historical record. To stockholders, they’re bragging about profits.
Freelancers are a bargain. Staff writers get paid a salary and benefits and are given office space. Freelancers get paid by the piece, earning no benefits and requiring no office space. As a result of Tasini, publishers increasingly are attempting to pay writers the same — or even lower — rates for all rights that they traditionally have paid for first print rights. As a result, some freelancers are organizing — witness the boycott of Business Week by photographers — and the thousands of writers who subscribe to the American Society of Journalists and Authors Contracts Watch (http://www.asja.org/cw/cw.php). Others are slowly being forced into other fields.
Publishers and even some writers (Eric Alterman in his MSNBC column) have characterized the afterlife of stories as being worth only pennies. That depends upon the story. Many freelancers, especially travel and other service writers, have traditionally sold the same story to numerous publications that do not have overlapping circulations. More than a few have sold movie or television rights to their dramatic narratives for five or six figures. Further, technology now means those stories can be repackaged and resold in a variety of ways. They can be sold to databases. They can be assembled in anthologies. They can be reprinted by the hundreds for a fat profit. Publications like the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have healthy reprint businesses (http://www.djreprints.com/).
There are simple ways to pay freelancers their fair share. Mechanisms are already in place. The Authors Guild and the American Society of Journalists and Authors founded the Authors Registry (http://www.webcom.com/registry/welcome.html) years ago for just this purpose. The National Writers Union did the same thing with its Publication Rights Clearinghouse (http://www.nwu.org/prc/prchome.htm).
The time is now for writers — and writers’ organizations — to sit down with publishers and work out a fair industry standard contract the allows publishers to include stories in databases, but properly compensates writers for the extra uses of their stories. Do publishers really want to spend millions deleting stories? Are they willing to roll the dice when they may be liable for hundreds of millions of dollars — or maybe a few billion dollars — in damages in the three class action suits backed by The Authors Guild, The American Society of Journalist and Authors, and The National Writers Union?
As a freelancer, I want to report and write. I don’t want to spend hour after hour negotiating contracts with publishers. But that’s what I do regularly. Let’s work towards a deal fair to all sides — writers, publishers and readers — and let’s do it now.