Syndication, copyright and how freelancers lose out

Are major publishers making money at the expense of freelancers and infringing copyright by doing so?

I recently wrote a feature for the Sunday Telegraph about gorilla trekking in Rwanda. It was the first commission I'd had from them. I was impressed that along with detailed information about how to lay out the fact box and about payment, there was also a document describing syndication and copyright terms.

This for me is a first - after a decade of writing for all sorts of publications. Often the most you'd get from a commissioning editor was a hurried email which might have mentioned the fee they were paying you. Never in all this time has anyone openly discussed syndication or copyright.

I have never written again for The Guardian because I got so hacked off with the way their travel editor at the time commissioned stuff over the phone, didn't commit to publishing dates and would never confirm a fee on email. And, check out this piece I wrote for the Daily Mail - now available for people to pay to read on another website. Did I get anything for this? Of course not. Was it even discussed? No.

I can't reproduce the complete document from the Telegraph here as it runs to a couple of pages.  This is the crucial bit, which is taken from the covering letter as it's made even more explicit there. (emphasis in bold is theirs)

We will, where possible, seek to syndicate your work to other publications and will pay you 50% of all syndication fees we receive if it is sold as an individual piece.

So thumbs up to the Telegraph for at least addressing this issue and explaining it - to a degree.

I was pretty pleased to discover that my feature also got published in the Sydney Morning Herald a week or two later. I was looking forward to 50% of the syndication fees as promised in the T&Cs documents.

Several weeks later after an unreturned call and an unanswered email I got through to the syndication department and was informed that unfortunately my piece was taken from a feed subscription service that the SMH takes from the Telegraph. So it wasn't sold as an individual piece. So... no cash.

I was told that I could request my features not be included in feeds so that this kind of thing wouldn't happen. I did so. (Why on earth would any writer want their work republished without further payment?)

Why no fee for articles published via the feed service? The impression I was given was that they couldn't keep tabs on which features a particular subscribing newspaper published and it was too difficult to administer. Is that my problem? I don't think so. What makes a piece published via a subscription feed any less worthy of a cut of the syndication fee?

It's ironic that in attempting to make some moves in the right direction, the Telegraph sensitised me sufficiently to this situation to spur me to write this blog post. But I think it's time all newspapers and magazines set our proper terms and conditions that state explicitly the situation with copyright and syndication. Frankly it's gone on long enough and it's lousy business practice. Of course most freelancers won't complain because they are dependent on these very publications for their next commission. Last thing they want to do is risk pissing them off and losing any further work opportunuities.

And this kind of thing is not just limited to syndication on the sly. What about newspapers republishing features commissioned for the print edition on their own websites too? (I should point out that the covering letter I got from the Telegraph made clear that they would publish my work on 'any platform' they chose, so they cover their backs on this point.) A while back getting stuff reproduced on a newspaper's website as well as in print was kind of handy - something I was happy to just let happen. It meant I could link to it to show people examples of my work. And the websites of all these publications were running at a loss. But these days this stuff is making people money. The Guardian's annual revenues from online in 2009/10 were £37 million according to PaidContent. The Guardian plans to make digital its main focus going forward, not print.

That huge back catalogue of features commissioned for the print editions of these publications and quietly published online too is now making them a lot of cash. I wonder what proportion of the content on their websites is not really theirs to publish? Where no agreement exists otherwise, does the copyright not remain with the author once the print edition has run their feature?

What's the worst example you've experienced of this kind of thing? And the best? Anyone else doing a better job than the Telegraph?


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