Why I Am No Longer Writing The Column I Loved for The Toronto Star
By Ann Douglas
Three weeks ago, I was confronted with one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make in my career as a freelance writer: sign a highly objectionable freelance writing agreement or stop writing a column I loved.
In mid-February, I was presented with a copy of The Toronto Star’s freelance agreement—an agreement that, among other things, asked me to permit The Toronto Star, its affiliates, and unspecified “others” to reuse my work without any additional compensation to me (and without my having any control over who those others might be and how they might choose to use my work):
1. In consideration of the fee paid by the Publisher for a particular Work, the Freelancer hereby grants to the Publisher and to each of its affiliates, an irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free non-exclusive license to:
(i) publish, communicate to the public and distribute copies of the Work in any publications or properties of the Publisher or any of its affiliates; and
(ii) reproduce, publish, republish, compile, prepare derivative works from the Work (including use of the Work for marketing purposes by the Publisher and its affiliates) and, so long as such rights are exercised either (A) in association with the name of the Freelancer and the Publisher (or its affiliates, as applicable) or (B) as part of a database or archive of any of the publications or properties in (i) above or in products derived from any of them, sub-license or authorize others to exercise the above rights in this paragraph 1,
in any medium, context or form whatsoever, and by any means or technology, whether now known or developed in the future.
I was most concerned about allowing The Toronto Star to license my work to third parties. Over the years, I have turned down at least $75,000 worth of work from infant formula companies because I do not wish to do anything that would undercut breastfeeding. I have also turned down the opportunity to work with a number of other companies who represent other types of products and services. Therefore, signing the agreement “as is” simply wasn’t an option for me.
Despite my attempts to find some mutually acceptable common ground, I quickly discovered that The Toronto Star was not open to negotiating the terms of its freelance agreement. The agreement had to be signed “as is”—and before my next column could be published.
I chose not to sign.
As these things go, I’m relatively lucky:
- This agreement was drafted in 2011. Due to someone’s administrative oversight, the agreement wasn’t presented to me until this past month. That means I managed to dodge this particular contract bullet for almost two years.
- The Toronto Star offered to pay me for the column I had in progress when I was presented with this contract. It was a decent thing for them to do. And all of my editors—and the publisher—were kind and compassionate as we talked this thing through.
- The day after I resigned from this contract, I was offered a two-book deal from a major Canadian publisher.
All that said, I can’t help but feel frustrated by the way things turned out. The word “agreement” implies that the two parties have had some sort of discussion and have found some common ground. That simply never happened in this situation. The “freelance agreement” was presented to me as a fait accompli—something to be signed—or not.
As I noted in the letter of resignation which I submitted to Toronto Star publisher John Cruikshank:
I have spent the past week trying to negotiate the terms of The Star‘s freelance agreement with various members of your staff.
Unfortunately, I have been told that the agreement must be signed “as is”—that there is no room for negotiation.
For the reasons outlined [elsewhere], that is simply not an option for me.
I loved having the opportunity to write for The Toronto Star. I was proud to be associated with a newspaper founded on principles of social justice.
And parents loved reading my columns in The Toronto Star. (I have a loyal following of Canadian readers, having sold 500,000 copies of the books in my pregnancy and parenting book series.)
I am disappointed that Toronto’s most progressive daily newspaper chose to act arbitrarily rather than progressively in dealing with my very legitimate contract concerns.
I have been left with no alternative but to give up a column that I loved writing and that was highly valued by Toronto Star readers.
Rather than ending up with the win-win I hoped to negotiate, we are each left with a lose-lose.
I know this won’t be the last time I have to push back hard against an unacceptable freelance agreement this year. (I’m already aware of at least one more contract battle I’ll be fighting.) I also know that the only way we’re going to prevent the continued deterioration of working conditions in our industry (to the point where writing becomes a quaint hobby as opposed to a respected profession) is by standing firm, shoulder to shoulder. I’m willing to take that stand with my fellow writers. How about you?
Ann Douglas is an author, magazine writer, and a past president of the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC). She lives in Peterborough, Ontario. Her website is www.anndouglas.ca.
[Update/editor’s note: The CMG is still collecting signatures on its letter from freelancers protesting the Toronto Star’s contributor agreement. To see the letter — and find out how many have signed so far — please email Jean Broughton at firstname.lastname@example.org.]