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?


17 thoughts on “Syndication, copyright and how freelancers lose out

  1. Here's the small print from the Telegraph's Ts&Cs:
    "2.1 Except where already agreed in a separate contract with us, when we commission any work in any format, including text, photograph, video and audio, all current and future copyright in any such work will be retained by the creator but, by creating any such work, the creator agrees that we, and those authorised by us, shall have an irrevocable, assignable licence for the period of copyright in such work to use, and exercise all rights in, any such work in any publication or service and in any current or future media worldwide, and we shall use reasonable endeavours not to use any such work in a manner which is materially distinct from and detrimental to the purpose for which we commissioned such work. Unless you are contracting as an agency, we shall also have the right to syndicate any such work and where we syndicate any such work as an ad hoc individual item that is separate to the distribution of the newspaper as a whole, we will pay 50% of the net identifiable sum received by us for that syndication."
    Everyone OK with that then!?

  2. Last year I put together a collection of my own travel writing, Snakes Alive, made up from pieces that were only ever published in print editions, and for which only First British serial Rights were sold. Younger readers may need to find an old person to explain the pre-internet concept of First British Serial Rights.

    It made me realise what a wealth of material I had at my disposal, some of which I have been able to re-use on my own websites:

    Today, of course, for the reasons Jeremy states, it's no longer so easy to keep control of the very words you write, the words you use to make a living. It's not acceptable that something you wrote should then be sold on to a third party, people who want to read it get charged for reading it, and you don't get a penny.

    This is only one reason there has been such a boom in self-publishing, and in people creating their own travel websites. It's got to the stage where, when JK Rowling says she's going to sell her own Harry Potter ebooks, booksellers express outrage. What? An author is going to sell her own words direct to readers? How dreadful.

    Newspapers like the Telegraph do pay generously upfront for your words, and you can't beat a big spread in a national newspaper for impressing people. But you do pay a long-term price for it.

  3. Like Mike, I have begun to put some shortened versions of my travel pieces that have appeared in print on my website, but why don't us travel writers try to syndicate our own copy?

  4. @Mike - Yes the fact that the Telegraph and the Mail too both pay pretty decent rates (compared to say The Guardian) makes me feel less annoyed about republication/syndication.
    @Jane - From my perspective I wouldn't have the first idea how to syndicate stuff and when I was writing as a full time freelance I was far more interested in getting new commissions for new destinations than trying to get stuff I'd written republished elsewhere. What I did do a lot was dust down stuff from the back catalogue from time to time to fill a particular need for a publisher.

    Having read Mike's two great guest posts here on Travelblather about monetizing content I'm far more aware of the potential value my back catalogue could have if I found time to publish it all on-line.
    (See this if you haven't already: http://travelblather.com/2011/05/google-adsense-how-to-make-money-from-travel-content.html)

  5. > I wouldn't have the first idea how to syndicate stuff

    These days I wouldn't have thought it would be worth the effort of trying. My first job in London was with a big literary agency, and while they did handle short stories and journalism for some of their more prestigious clients, it just wasn't worthwhile to try to syndicate bog-standard pieces like travel pieces. It simply wasn't financially viable, and it's likely to be even less so these days. I think your time is better spent pitching new ideas, or building your own website on a particular travel theme.

    Interestingly, both my wife and I have today been accepted onto a press trip purely on the strength of what we will write on one of our websites.

  6. It works both ways too - any articles taken from another paper as a freebie that don't see the writer paid a syndication fee are not only depriving the original writer, but taking up a page or two of space that another writer should be being paid to fill. ie. whose story got bumped so that they could run your gorillas piece for free?

    Re: syndication of your own work, I've put a few old pieces up on my own site, and they make peanuts through related advertising. I'm starting to experiment with a new site of hotel recommendations, however, cribbing material from mini-guides I've been writing and old factboxes. We'll see how that goes.

    I suspect the way to make money from old material will be to reshape it properly for a niche site, rather than just uploading it, however.

  7. It's essential we realise that once our work is out there it's a digital commodity, and the devil is, again, in the small print.

    Perhaps the key is creating a tiered rate card? This way publishers can get what they pay for, just not get as much as possible for what they pay for.

    If publications are digging up old content and publishing on the side (when it's not theirs to do so) they should be ashamed of themselves; we know there's value in online content, publishers have refined their business models to make huge profits from it - there really isn't any need for them to be taking take the piss.

    1. Hi Mark
      The rate card idea is nice in theory, but in practice the writer gets little option but to accept the cash the publication offers with little clarification of the terms. (Well that's my experience) Travel writing is so competitive, most writers are happy just to get the commission and the publishers I think know this and know that as a result they can pretty much act with impunity.
      Thanks for your comment

  8. "Where no agreement exists otherwise, does the copyright not remain with the author once the print edition has run their feature?"

    Yes it does, at least in U.S. practice where the creator's rights are inherently protected if the creator doesn't assign them away or the buyer of the print rights is silent on the subject in his contract with you. In the U.K., I'd imagine the law on residual right also are on your (the writer's) side, but of course you at least have the NUJ that you could consult on that issue.

    Thank you for raising an issue which also relates to what is - or should be - one of the main elements of the much talked-about "backlist" for any professional writer, in travel media or otherwise. I see nothing wrong in being assertive in defending any of your secondary or remaining rights to a work in your negotiating terms with the initial publisher - that's just a commonsense necessity to ensure you even have a backlist as part of your overall revenue stream, however small that may be in the short term it adds up in the longer term.

    As for worst and best that you ask about, I'd just say in a general way that actually the fairest in their terms just in my experience have actually been the broadsheets. Other print media have generally also been reasonable in allowing me to further market second and other rights. The worst have been the new kids on the block, meaning the bloggerati who are wanting all rights, in all media and universally and in perpetuity - well, not all the ones I've dealt with, but it's happened more than once now. That kind of strong-arming usually ends in a swift divorce with me:)

    1. Hi Hal
      Interesting about the new kids on the block. I guess they have less cash to pay writers in the first place and are desparately trying to make their business model work. I don't as a rule write for these kinds of people as they pay such pathetic rates anyway. I guess a lot of them don't come from publishing backgrounds either so have no idea about copyright etc.?

      1. Jeremy - I think in any medium you have the same spectrum of individuals having either a business plan that has some start-up capital and then...there's the other nightmare that's not thought through very well. But whatever the internal financials of the website, that's a separate issue entirely from the contributor's rights and the best interests of the contributor in exploiting those rights further. Let's look even at your example of no previous experience or interest in print media existing on the part of either the online publisher or his/her contributor - it still leaves open to that contributor the possibility of anything from: other language rights to further exploit electronically on the same story; retaining rights to future second sales to non-competing websites/blogs; even retaining rights to compile material into future e-books. Actually, it doesn't matter what the present or the future holds in media - the change will never relieve the writer of needing to be vigilant in asserting and exploiting their full possible range of rights in any piece of work, whatever the medium.

  9. As Mike and David above will confirm, if you write for me, Jeremy, you retain copyright and my license is non-transferable, non-re-assignable.

    #treatasyouwouldwishtobetreated :)

    1. Yes, I've written two things for Alastair and he is excellent work with in this and other respects - like paying promptly! (Last time by BACS within 30 minutes of the emailed invoice).

  10. This is a really interesting subject, Jeremy. Thanks for raising it. There are, I suppose, two ways of looking at this. The first - which I try to avoid for fear of raising my blood pressure - is to think of all the money newspapers like the Guardian and Independent have made from flogging off my pieces over the years, which I have spotted in newspapers everywhere from Belfast to South Africa, via Denmark despite having never signed anything giving my permission for this.

    The second - which I am tending more towards these days - is to look on travel writing as something I do for pleasure from time to time when there is either somewhere I really want to go, or other pieces I can write on a particular destination. It's a shame, but it is just another catch to what used to be the best job in the world.

    As a side note, Condé Nast Traveller are very good about paying when one of their other titles uses my pieces, but the problem then becomes dealing with the absurd tax rules and form filling required by the Spanish, Italian or - worse of all - Indian editions, which usually result in a fee about a third of the one quoted once the tax has been paid.

  11. Hi there,
    My experiences have mainly been good, but I totally hear ya. I syndicate my copy through an agency - which seems to work OK. Basically, I make an effort not to sign away all my rights, so I can republish stories I've written for magazines in the UK abroad. I split the fee with the syndication agency (Profiles) so, for example, I've just sold a piece on Iceland for £350 to a newspaper in South Africa, a year after it was published in the UK, and got £175 for it. Not megabucks, but I've not really worked for it so it's good.

    I've had work syndicated via Conde Nast Traveller UK to its Spanish edition and been paid for that, so I'd recommend doing that too.

    And increasingly, for other reasons, I'm feeling like travel writing is a fun extra, rather than the best job in the world for me too, Mike. Oh (signs nostalgically), it was fun while it lasted...

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