German unions fight off rights-grab

GERMAN journalists' unions have fought off an attempt by the newspaper publisher Axel Springer to grab rights from freelance writers and photographers. Back in January Springer (not to be confused with the book and journal publisher Springer Verlag) presented freelances with contracts which gave it a wide exclusive right to re-use words and pictures and to sub-licence work to other publishers.

The contract tried to get around Germany's strict law on authors' rights by having freelances agree that they would accept zero damages if Springer failed to identify them as author of their work. As Benno Pöppelman of the Deutscher Journalisten-Verband (DJV) puts it, "Negotiations about the contents of the conditions were not intended... those who wanted to work in future for Springer had to sign."

German journalists' associations together advised their members to refuse to sign the contract. Thousands took this advice. Some who immediately told the publisher they would not sign were told that they would not work for Springer again. Others just kept quiet.

The DJV, with the support of the Deutsche Journalistinnen- und Journalisten-Union (dju) section of the umbrella union Ver.di and the photographers' organisation FreeLens, launched a court action against Springer on their members' behalf. Germany's law governing injunctions allows them to do this on the grounds that Springer was engaging in unfair competition with freelances over the re-use of their own work.

On 5 June the district court in Berlin granted a summary injunction forbidding Springer to impose contract terms that allow re-use and sub-licensing without payment. The clause on journalists' right to a byline was struck out, as was one declaring that Springer would pay only half the agreed fee for work commissioned but not used. And the court reminded Springer that individually negotiated contract terms supersede the standard contract - whether agreed in writing or orally.

The district court decided it could not overturn Springer's claim to rights to re-use work. The unions say this contradicts Germany's 2002 law governing authors' rights contracts - the Urhebervertragsrechtsgesetz. They are taking this to a higher court, the Kammergericht in Berlin, probably in January. They are also seeking to have a higher court confirm the ruling on the central issues, and intend to go to Germany's Supreme Court for a ruling that district courts can, in fact, issue injunctions on the law of contracts.

Meanwhile, Axel Springer has changed its standard contract in freelances' favour.

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