Whose ‘Rights’ are Right?

Posted 03.04.08

If you're like most TV viewers, you were annoyed to miss many of your favorite programs during the prolonged strike of 10,500 US writers in the film and TV industry. The issue was a simple one. The writers wanted "a share of the burgeoning digital-media market, including compensation for Internet-delivered TV shows and movies."

Most actors supported the writers, although the strike put support workers in financial jeopardy and threw next fall's schedule into chaos as pilots of new shows were put on hold.

As a writer, I can explain why this strike was so crucial.

Hundreds of online sites are popping up, catering to tiny niche markets, often containing "content" (which somebody has written, even when the author isn't credited) and earning the site owners either by ads or more subtle methods.

Did you realize that every time you sign up for a newsletter, e-mail "special offer," or just to request information, your e-mail may be added to a growing list which site owners share and sell to each other and to advertisers?

The problem is that writers contracted to produce film or TV scripts felt they should share in the profits generated by putting this "content" on the web in some form, either as streaming video, downloads, even on cell phones.

These writers are freelancers. They have no permanent jobs with benefits, just contracts for specific shows which are subject to cancellation. A writer may be part of a team writing one show, helping to develop a pilot for next season, and perhaps in talks with someone else about a future film project.

I've been a freelance writer for more than 40 years. I know what can happen when a magazine you've been contributing to every month suddenly folds, when a new editor drops your column from a magazine, and the radio program you've been on for several years disappears from the schedule.

I no longer write for the Ottawa Citizen, but I'm appalled at how many of their regular freelancers are being treated. CanWest, which owns the Citizen and many other papers across the country (as well as Global TV and several other enterprises), has presented freelancers with a contract whose terms are unacceptable.

Writers are asked to give up "all rights, in any media, in perpetuity worldwide." If their work is used in another CanWest paper or online, they receive no additional payment, and there's even a clause that gives CanWest "moral rights."

That means the corporation can take the writers' article and change some of the facts presented to make it more acceptable to advertisers, run it without the author's byline, or distort it in any other way.

So be prepared not to see some of your favorite writers in the Citizen any more. And be wary of articles from other papers promoting specific products. This isn't journalism; it's thinly-disguised advertising.

As for TV, the actors' contracts are up in June, so be prepared for more lame "reality" shows.

Bobbi has information about freelance contracts on her website. Go to www.SimonTeakettle.com/ and look under both Copyright and Freelance.

Barbara Floria Graham is the author of the 20th anniversary edition of Five Fast Steps to Better Writing and Mewsings/Musings. Her website: www.SimonTeakettle.com

Copyright © 2008 Barbara Floria Graham/Log Cabin Chronicles/03.08