17 Writers Battle NY Times
The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) provides a steady stream
of information of interest to photographers. (See Article 10 in the archive.)
Lately ASJA has been particularly active in organizing writers and fighting for
their rights to be compensated for digital usages.
March 25,1996 -- The ongoing freelance writers' protest directed at the New York Times is having an effect, writers say, but the newspaper hasn't yet
moved far enough to satisfy them. The action, which began last summer with a statement signed by 13
well known writers, was sparked by an internal memo decreeing that the
Times "shall own all rights to material printed in the newspaper."
By law and industry standard practice, freelancers license a
publisher only the right to use a work once, retaining ownership for
secondary uses. But, citing a wish to control all its content for a
variety of ventures in electronic publishing, the memo ordered that
writers who decline to sign everything over to the Times "will no
longer be published in the newspaper."
That isn't the way it's turning out.
Early on, writers for the newspaper's Magazine, Book Review and Op
Ed sections learned that they would not be asked to yield all rights
to the Times. Then, Arts & Leisure and Travel fell; after those
sections' editors told Times management that the new policy was making
it tough to keep better writers, a less onerous contract was devised
for freelancers who object to the all-or-nothing demand.
Next came the Living section, which had lost regular contributors,
including one of its stars, food columnist Jacques Pepin, who resigned
in protest; it, too, now offers some writers a different agreement.
("Less odious," Living's editor describes it.) Certain writers for
other sections continue to contribute to the Times without contract,
eight months after the management order was issued.
The Times backed off further by offering to split some syndication
income with writers--promising a 50-50 share of individual sales by
the New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., as it had often done
before. And the new contracts are by the article rather than
perpetual contracts, and do not require writers to indemnify the
publisher--two major sticking points in the contract of last summer.
Still remaining in virtually all Times contracts is a provision for
full electronic rights, which allows the publisher to keep all the
income from selling and reselling articles on its well publicized new
World Wide Web site and in other areas of the online world.
Syndication through the New York Times News Service, which offers
Times articles to 650 client newspapers and magazines worldwide, also
yields no income to writers under the Times plan.
No go, say freelancers, who hold as a cardinal principle that they
must be paid for each secondary use of their material.
Nearly 600 freelance writers, including some of America's most
famous, now have added their names to a statement denouncing the
Times. The statement, which has been sent to Times editors,
department heads and management, criticizes the Times for demanding
secondary publishing rights to freelance articles for no extra pay.
The latest on the anti-Times protest was released under the names
of five major writers' organizations. The three groups that launched
the action, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the
Authors Guild and the National Writers Union, have been joined by the
National Association of Science Writers and Washington Independent
Among the latest signatories are former Times food critic Mimi
Sheraton, novelist Jane Smiley and critic Jacques Barzun. They join
the owners of other well known bylines who signed on earlier,
including Ken Follett, Erica Jong, Garrison Keillor, J. Anthony Lukas,
Alvin Toffler, Heidi Toffler, Fay Weldon, Isabel Allende, Nicholson
Baker, Susan Cheever, Vivian Gornick, Gael Greene, David Halberstam,
Kitty Kelley, Norman Mailer, Jessica Mitford, Jane O'Reilly, Nan
Robertson, Garry Trudeau, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, Dan Wakefield and
The writers' statement declares: "This policy represents a
profound break with publishing tradition .... [The Times']
justification for this drastic action--that it needs to fully control
all of the works on its pages to be a leader in electronic
journalism--is specious. Additional rights may be acquired, and paid
for, by normal contractual means."
"We strongly urge the Times to choose a more equitable course," the
writers' statement says, "and to become a responsible leader in
For the names of several hundred writers who have signed the statement to the
New York Times click on wRITERS .
ASJA Activities On Other Fronts
In a March cover story, QUILL, the magazine of the Society of
Professional Journalists (SPJ), explores "A Fight for Rights," the
move by some publishers to wrest secondary publishing rights from
freelancers. In the course of preparing the story, Quill's editors
were informed by ASJA that the magazine, whose parent organization
has strongly condemned "efforts to deny freelancers the legitimate
secondary rights to their work," was itself placing freelance
articles into online and CD-ROM databases without permission and
without paying authors a share of the income generated from the
reuses. Chief editor Maggie Balough, only weeks on the job, added
an editor's footnote to the story, admitting that "Quill has a red
face" and promising to deal with the matter "expeditiously." Quill
is discussing with ASJA's Contracts Committee how the magazine can
reconcile its dealings with freelancers with an SPJ resolution that
likened articles used electronically to songs and TV scripts that
bring royalties to their authors.
Publications ranging from Publishers Weekly and the New York Times
to Journalist (the weekly of the Swedish Journalists' Union), as
well as National Public Radio, have noted that the AUTHORS
REGISTRY, the not-for-profit royalty collection and licensing
agency for writers, is now up and running. The Registry is in the
process of distributing electronic database royalty checks from
HARPER'S and photocopy license fees from the AUTHORS LICENSING AND
COLLECTING SOCIETY in England. PUBLISHERS WEEKLY has said it too
expects to use the not-for-profit Registry to pay for electronic
use of articles and reviews. Organizations (including all the major
writers' groups) and agents representing more than 50,000 writers
have signed with the Registry.
WEIDER PUBLICATIONS (MEN'S FITNESS, SHAPE, etc.) has not had the
most writer-friendly contract, perhaps because many of the firm's
writers are weight-lifting or fitness specialists, not professional
writers. But savvy freelancers have long been able to pare Weider's
demands down to the reasonable. Lately, however, some Weider
editors been telling writers that management is discussing a new
company-wide contract that would insist on such extras as broad,
perpetual electronic use and reuse in various foreign editions, all
under the same initial fee. Word was that the contract will be
accompanied by a hard line--no changes allowed. But there are some
indications that preliminary resistance by freelancers who've been
sounded out by editors is having an effect. Weider sources now say
the new contract is still being debated in-house and may take
different forms for different titles. Company president and CEO
Michael T. Carr, in CompuServe's Journalism Forum, posted a heated
denial in which he admitted only that "the new contract will seek
additional versatility." According to Carr's message, the company
plans to pay "as much as 40% over current rates," but no
elaboration was offered, nor did Carr say whether writers will
share in continuing electronic reuse or be expected to turn the
rights over for a buyout fee.
Business Week, in a Feb. 26 story about management and structural
changes in the offing at CompuServe, reports that competition among
online services, and especially with the World Wide Web, is having
an effect. "Just a year ago," the story says, "content providers
got only 20 cents of every dollar a subscriber spent looking at
their product--CompuServe or AOL would keep the rest. Now, content
providers get about 50 cents on the dollar."
In Canada, SOUTHAM NEWSPAPERS (MONTREAL GAZETTE and others) has
begun telling freelancers the publisher wants the right, for one
price, to publish any article in any and all of the chain's papers
and use it forever in electronic databases. Noting that such a
move would wipe out resale income for writers used to
self-syndicating their work across the country, the Periodical
Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) called Southam's attempt "a
shabby way to do business" and issued a blunt warning: "Everyone
who buckles under not only consents to being exploited, but weakens
the position of those who are struggling to defend the rights of us
In response to that and similar grabs being attempted by THE GLOBE
& MAIL, TELEMEDIA, MACLEAN HUNTER and other large publishers in
Canada, nearly a dozen creators' organizations have been meeting in
recent weeks to form a nationwide copyright coalition. Michael
Smith, of Canadian Science Writers Association, summed up the need
for joint defense: "Publishers are seeking to buy what they used to
rent, for the same price."
Writers report: changing the work-made-for-hire clause in a
contract from FITNESS (GRUNER + JAHR) to simple First North
American print rights, with no extras at all, terms far less
onerous than those being offered by other G + J magazines...
making several changes in a FREQUENT FLYER contract, including
adding fees to be negotiated for rights covering reprint,
anthology, electronic and broadcast use, and helpful modification
of the kill-fee and warranty-and-indemnification clauses...
receiving an extra 10 percent of an article fee for permission to
post excerpts on a Web site, from the apparently aptly named
Death reported, earlier this year: Jerry Siegel, the writer half of
the team that created the comic character Superman. In March 1938,
four years after their graduation from high school, Siegel and
partner Joe Shuster sold all rights to the caped character to DC
Comics. Price: $130. Years later, tormented by the billions of
dollars he didn't get to keep, he was quoted as saying, "I can't
stand to look at a Superman comic book. It makes me physically
ill." (The NEW YORK TIMES, in its obituary, said Siegel was
"soured" by "his failure to safeguard his rights." The Times, as
many freelancers will attest, would like its own contributors to
follow in Siegel's footsteps.)