Transcontinental Media agreement expands copyright demands
There’s a new Transcontinental Media contributor agreement and it’s not going to bring writers any joy.
The publisher, whose most popular titles include Elle Canada, Canadian Living, Style at Home, The Hockey News and Vancouver Magazine, has made significant changes to the 2009 version of their agreement – an agreement that led to a boycott of Transcon publications by about 15 writers’ organizations, including the Canadian Freelance Union, the Professional Writers Association of Canada, the Canadian Writers Group and the Writers’ Union of Canada.
Where the previous contract demanded a sort of parallel copyright held by both the writer and the publisher, that license was only in relation to the magazine title in question. Derek Finkle of the Canadian Writers Group says this agreement goes much further.
“Where this one seems to change is they are just taking full-on copyright. I don’t believe there’s any attachment to a specific title in this agreement,” he says.
“So you’re selling them, presumably at magazine rates, a pretty broad array of rights.”
Moral rights clause
Even more troubling, says Finkle, is the clause in the agreement that demands the writer waive their moral rights to their work.
“The best way it’s been explained to me by media lawyers who work in this area is that if you waive moral rights it allows Transcontinental Media to alter the essential meaning – the essence – of your work without your permission,” he says.
“So the example I always use is if you wrote a really glowing piece about Sarah Palin, for example, they would have the right to actually turn it into – without your permission and still put your name on it – a very negative piece about Sarah Palin.”
Further complicating matters, Finkle says there’s a line in the agreement that allows Transcon to remove a writer’s byline from their work.
“So they have the right to essentially mutilate your work – and I’m not saying they would go out of their way to do that, but that’s what [the agreement] gives them the right to do – they can alter the meaning of your work, torque it in a way you might not be comfortable with, and they can either leave your name on it or take your name off it.”
“I don’t know really which is worse,” he says.
Finkle acknowledges that the agreement might not concern a writer who produces mainly small pieces of service journalism for Transcon.
“If you’re doing something that’s very detached and service-oriented about hockey tape or lipstick, maybe you don’t care whether your name is on it,” he says.
“But the problem with this agreement is that it covers everything you ever do for them. So once you sign it for one thing, it applies to everything else. For something that’s more personal, or something that has some unique reportage in it, or something that could potentially be spun out into a book or another article or a television show or a documentary, it starts to get really problematic because you’ve now given up your copyright, it seems to me, not just to the words but even to the idea,” he says.
Finkle says the rights claims in the Transcon agreement are similar to the types of rights claims in corporate writing contracts.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is like writing for a corporation,” he says.
“You’re writing something and they’re going to own it in all ways and your name’s probably not going to be on it. It’s the equivalent of high-paying commercial work on a rights scale. That’s all great if you want to pay at that level, but they don’t.”
In fact if this type of contract becomes the norm, commercial writing rates may suffer, too. If magazines start getting all the benefits of commercial work while paying much lower editorial rates, writers are likely to see downward pressure on rates of all kinds.
Finkle says the only leverage a writer has against this type of contract is to not write for publications that use them.
“If enough people say that to their editors, that gives the editors the ammunition to go back to their bosses and say ‘look, we’re getting a lot of pushback on this’ and that’s the only way anything’s ever going to change.”
Transcon writer refusing to sign
One long-time contributor to Transcon publications says that’s the route she’s decided to take. The writer, who requested that her name be withheld for this post, has declined to sign the agreement, effectively terminating her working relationship with Transcon.
“It definitely felt like the right thing to do,” she says, adding that she felt sick to her stomach when she first read the new agreement.
“It rankled because the worldwide rights are overreaching, to say the least. To be told that as a writer you’re giving up all your publishing rights, print, digital, audio and any other media yet to be invented for the entire universe and that they can make changes without discussing with the writer, that’s just disheartening,” she says.
She adds that the most disturbing aspect of the agreement is the issue of byline removal.
“A lot of freelancers depend on their portfolio to continue to land more projects and stay in business,” she says.
“So I think any contract should have something in it to help you protect that right. Now they’re saying ‘we’re going to take your work, remove your byline, reproduce it six ways to Sunday and by the way there’s going to be no further remuneration,’” she says.
“And I, like many [writers] I know, agonize over commas, phrases, words. I interview twenty people, I read six books, I write my 1500-2000 words and I turn in the story on time with lots of information for the fact checker and I’m pretty sure I deserve to keep my name on it.”
She feels she can’t continue to work for Transcontinental Media under the circumstances.
“I have to walk away from this, because it’s just wrong,” she says.
“I don’t want to be bullied. I don’t want to be in an abusive relationship, it’s time to go.”
Stand with the CMG
Don Genova, president of the freelance branch of the Canadian Media Guild, says that writers need to stand up against this type of overreaching contract if they’re to gain back any ground.
“This new Transcontinental contract is much worse for freelancers than even the one the company imposed in 2009,” he says.
“At that time, some freelancers decided to stop doing work for the company but many of us felt more could have been done to pressure the company to back off if freelancers were better organized. This time, the Canadian Media Guild is in a position to bring freelancers into the union and back a collective action and support individual freelancers who join the effort,” he says.
“If enough freelancers affected by this contract join with us, we can stand together to stop this unreasonable Transcontinental grab from becoming the norm in the publishing business.”