Sunday, October 17, 2004

Every once in a while someone asks me, "Why do you write?" I usually give either the essential truth ("I don't know how not to write.") or the pragmatic truth ("The stack of unpaid bills on my desk.")

But these days, from a business perspective, I really don't know why I do it. Some time ago I decided that I wasn't going to write for any publication that took all rights without making it worth my while. For those that don't know, some publications essentially want to buy the writer's copyright. That means that the publication, who didn't create the work, get to keep making money from it as they see fit. The ink-stained wretch who actually did the legwork and pounded out the story, on the other hand, gets a one-time payment.

There are exceptions to my rule. I wrote for All Movie Guide because I enjoyed the work, it honed my ability to write concisely, and it provided me with plenty of grist for other gigs. I write for PC World and its affiliated publications because although they claim most rights, they pay very well and it's a pleasure to work with their editors.

I wrote three or four articles for Montreal's Gazette a few years back, although the pay wasn't spectacular, because I enjoyed doing it and it was a pleasure to work with then-Arts editor Lucinda Chodan. But when Southam, the publisher, started getting grabby with writers' rights, I decided to stop pitching them ideas. It simply wasn't worth it. When Canwest snapped up Southam's papers I hoped things would get better. Instead they got worse, with increasingly restrictive contracts.

The latest is a huge slap in the face. Take a look at the third paragraph:

Freelancer hereby irrevocably grants and assigns to CanWest all rights of every kind in and to the Content (including copyright), and agrees that CanWest shall have the right to exclusively use and exploit the Content in any manner and in any and all media, whether now known or hereafter devised, throughout the universe, in perpetuity. For greater certainty, Freelancer shall have no right to re-sell or re-publish the Content without CanWest's express written permission. CanWest shall be entitled to edit the content, and Freelancer hereby waives in favour of CanWest and its assigns, all "moral rights" in and to the Content. Nothing herein shall obligate CanWest to use or publish the Content in any manner. The rights granted hereunder may be freely assigned or sub-licensed by CanWest to any third party.

Let me translate this piece by piece for those of you lucky enough to be unfamiliar with this kind of legalese.

Freelancer hereby irrevocably grants and assigns to CanWest all rights of every kind in and to the Content (including copyright)...: You don't own any of your work. Not a scrap. If your article becomes the basis of a multi-million dollar movie (see Top Gun and The Fast and The Furious), you won't get a penny.

...and agrees that CanWest shall have the right to exclusively use and exploit the Content in any manner and in any and all media...: On the other hand, if we decide to make a TV movie out of it to air on one of our networks, we can go right ahead and do that. Or we can publish a book. Hell, we'll make a CD if we want to. You won't get a penny.

...whether now known or hereafter devised, throughout the universe, in perpetuity: If we want to put your words in our database and sell them to anyone we please, we can do that. If Sony invents ice cubes that can hold text, and we want to print your article on them, we can do that. If we want to sell your work to your descendants on Mars, Betelgeuse II, or any of the outlying human or alien colonies, we can do that. You won't get a penny. On the other hand, if someone invents trans-dimensional travel and you decide to sell your work in some other universe, that's okay with us. We're all for free enterprise.

For greater certainty, Freelancer shall have no right to re-sell or re-publish the Content without CanWest's express written permission: We'd just like to make it clear: You did the work, but you can't make any money off it, other than the couple of bucks we threw your way. You can't put it on your Web site. In fact, if you do, we're within our legal bounds to sue your sorry, writerly ass. But if you ask us nicely, we may let you. Or we might not. Whatever.

CanWest shall be entitled to edit the content, and Freelancer hereby waives in favour of CanWest and its assigns, all "moral rights" in and to the Content: If you're left-wing, we can edit your work so that it supports right-wing interests. And your name will still be on it. Hell, we can misrepresent you any way we want.

Nothing herein shall obligate CanWest to use or publish the Content in any manner: About the only benefit you have left is that people will see your work, and you can leverage that to get other work. Except that we might decide not to let people see your work.

The rights granted hereunder may be freely assigned or sub-licensed by CanWest to any third party: Once we're bored with it, we can sell the rights to your work to anyone we please. Anyone. Scientologists, our mistress's younger brother (who needs a break), or, more likely, to some other grabby corporation.

So... why do I write?

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because CanWest Global is not the world. And because it's in you to write, and nothing should stop that.

And because you're a good writer and you love it.

(I'm wondering why they didn't put "Stamped it, no erasies" at the bottom of all of that. Yeesh.)

9:59 AM, November 02, 2004  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gah. Sorry. That last is from me.

Ceri

9:59 AM, November 02, 2004  
Blogger Emru Townsend said...

Thanks for the compliment. There's one problem with your reasons, though: this grab-all-rights tendency has been on the increase over the years, especially among well-paying newspaper publishers. In fact, one of the major lawsuits of the last few years has been Tasini v. The New York Times. This is why organizations like PWAC and the ASJA have committees that keep an eye on contracts.

11:37 AM, November 02, 2004  

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