we keep copyright

3 March: NUJ freelances reached a milestone in the battle for copyright today, with the publication of recommendations by an independent inquiry into the rights of freelance writers who contribute to the Guardian and Observer.

The outcome is that freelances will keep their copyright and moral rights, and fees will be structured to reflect the uses made of their material. NUJ freelance organiser Bernie Corbett said: "This points the way forward for the whole industry."

The inquiry was held to break a stalemate over rights that started over two years ago when GNL -- which publishes the Guardian and Observer -- sought to acquire all rights in freelance contributions to enable it to recycle (or "re-purpose" as they put it) material through new electronic media such as on-line databases and the internet, as well as world-wide syndication.

The Guardian was repeatedly accused of threatening freelances with the ultimatum: "Hand over your copyright or we will never use you again."

The union's position was that contributors should normally allow only a single use in the original newspaper, unless other arrangements were specifically agreed and paid for.

The recommendations of the inquiry are very different -- much better for freelance writers, and more workable for the publisher as well.

The main recommendation is that there should be a standard licence, expected to apply in over 90 per cent of cases, which allows GNL the uses it wants while copyright remains with contributors, who will be free to resell their material to other outlets except where there is a conflict of interest.

Both sides agree that there will be a few cases where non- standard arrangements are needed, and there will be a procedure for resolving disputes.

The inquiry proposes that the fee for each contribution should be in two parts: one covering the original newspaper use and the other encompassing syndication and electronic use.

GNL and the NUJ will now begin negotiations to agree the level of fees and the proportions in which they will be split. There will be a monitoring system to allow fees to increase to reflect any increase in revenues from electronic publishing and syndication over future years.

The inquiry -- originally proposed by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger after nearly two years of fruitless correspondence and negotiations -- was held under the auspices of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS).

The three-person panel, chaired by Professor Jon Clark of the University of Southampton with Maureen Duffy nominated by the NUJ and Andreas Whittam Smith nominated by Guardian Newspapers Ltd, heard evidence over two days.

The NUJ produced a 150-page submission, with detailed arguments and letters, press clippings and other documents relating the entire controversy.

The union's evidence was presented by freelance organiser Bernie Corbett and copyright co-ordinator Carol Lee. They brought in a team of expert witnesses including Society of Authors general secretary Mark Le Fanu, NUJ Freelance Industrial Council chair Phil Sutcliffe, authors' rights expert Chris Barlas, cartoonist Steve Bell and freelance columnist Joan Smith.

The panel, whose report was unanimous, stated: "We were required to take into account both the rights and interests of freelance contributors and the needs of GNL as a publisher. We believe the recommendations represent a fair, equitable and practical system for dealing with copyright."

Bernie Corbett, NUJ national organiser for freelances, said: "This is a landmark case and has been closely watched by the rest of the industry. I am delighted with the outcome and I am sure it will be accepted by the vast majority of freelance contributors. It gives an example to certain other newspaper, magazine and broadcasting publishers who have been misusing their corporate power to twist journalists' arms and force them to sign away all rights in their work. The Guardian and the NUJ have pointed the way forward."

Guardian editor Rusbridger said: "The Guardian warmly welcomes the clarity that the panel has brought to the increasingly complicated field of copyright. Few newspapers or broadcasting organisations have quite caught up with the implications of new technology for copyright, which is why we originally proposed this procedure. I am sure it will work to the benefit of both the Guardian and the many freelancers whose efforts we depend on and I very much hope it will serve as a model agreement for the rest of the industry."

The International Federation of Journalists greeted the deal as "a watershed agreement not just for Britain, but for journalists throughout Europe".

General secretary Aidan White said: "This breakthrough in Britain, home of some of the worst robber barons in publishing, takes the campaign for authors' rights an important step forward. We shall now press home our demands for a fair deal for freelances throughout Europe and beyond.

"With a new directive on intellectual property rights just agreed by the European Parliament it is now clear that the battle for authors' rights is not just being fought, it is being won."

Mar/Apr 1999
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Q&A: what does the agreement mean to you?

Andreas Whittam-Smith on the deal in the Guardian


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