How Australia’s media giants put the squeeze on freelance journos

Freelance journalists are still being pressured into signing dodgy contracts nearly two years after their union won the right to represent them in wage negotiations.

Standard contracts offered up by our four largest print media organisations and obtained by Crikey show independent hacks continue to confront a range of dubious clauses that impinge on their moral rights, strip them of meaningful copyright, increase their legal liability and force down word rates.

In May 2010, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance got the green light from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to negotiate on behalf of thousands of freelancers scrapping with Fairfax, ACP Magazines, News Limited and Pacific Magazines. But despite some hoo ha at the time, progress for Australia’s freelance army has been glacial.

While the ACCC decision meant freelancers were given a free pass on collusion — the usual allegation when businesses get together to strong-arm other firms — major publishers were able to leave contracts stillborn by refusing to bargain. And unlike regular enterprise negotiations, freelancers, who are often a one-woman small business complete with an ABN, aren’t able to withdraw their labour to enforce a corporate boycott.

The MEAA, who has 1500 freelance members on its books or about 9% of its total membership base, says publishers have refused to speak to them, meaning clauses banning syndication (a freelancer’s main revenue source) remain in place.

Crikey understands that while clauses saddling scribes with the cost of defamation action have been curbed, the grab-bag of onerous contracts on this 2010 whistleblower website remain broadly the same.

Freelance gardening writer Catherine Stewart wrote for Pacific Magazines’ titles Your Garden and Better Homes and Gardens until she got jack of their demands in 2010 (Stewart now runs her own online publishing venture, having poached many of Your Garden’s more senior writers).

The PacMags contract (read it here) draws a distinction between “commissioned” work and that offered on a “supplier” basis. If it’s commissioned, then the author “assigns and licensees have the right to utilise the material … in any media currently known or hereafter created throughout the world in perpetuity, including (without limitation) any other magazine title and any website of the publisher and any related entity.” In the flash of a pen — for example, with a minor change to the word limit — a supplier piece, which attracts a default 12-month exclusive license, could easily transform into a commissioned one.

Stewart also penned pieces for News’ magazine arm NewsLifeMedia’s Gardening Australia before the firm began to insert a “retrospectivity” clause granting the company control of her archive. Buried in the new News contract issued mid-last year is a statement on “Previous Works”, defined as anything with an on-sale date of January 2006 and after. This effectively gave News access to hundreds of Stewart’s own stories, without any payment.

Last year, NewsLife, which also publishes big titles including the MasterChef Magazine, Vogue and GQ Australia, introduced its new “contributor agreement” (read it here) that allows writers to keep copyright, but grants News an “exclusive, world-wide, perpetual, royalty free licence” for two years, after which the freelancer has a limited number of permitted uses of their material.

Of course, disappointing word rates across the industry (the Fairfax feature rate oscillates between 35 and 75 cents a word) mean the major way to make money as a freelancer is by syndicating your work. However, if News sublicenses the piece then authors are only eligible for 30 cents a word in compensation from the third-party publisher or 40% of the total fee. PacMags’ freelancers get 40%.

Still, News’ contracts, which it defends as “entirely reasonable” and “fit for purpose”, look pretty solid next to other dubious efforts such asĀ Fairfax’s 2009 “contributors contract” that banned regular writers from working for other Australian outlets without written permission and granted the company “a worldwide, irrevocable, exclusive licence to reproduce and deal with Fairfax Work by all means whatsoever”. (Fairfax issued a no comment to Crikey on the issue).

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4 Responses

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  1. so, grab some subby crayon and redact yer own contracts …. ? Oh. (what are the subby’s up to nowadays ?)

    by izatso? on Apr 28, 2012 at 8:17 am

  2. Declining to sign a contract isn’t a good strategy since a court is likely to assume that any subsequent work was done in accordance with the unsigned contract. Signing the contract with changes is a reasonable strategy. However, if the publisher resends the original contract the freelancer should return it with the changes again. This leads to the ‘battle of the forms’ which the courts find difficult to untangle which they may resolve by referring to past practice between the parties or to industry practice.

    by Gavin Moodie on Apr 28, 2012 at 9:05 am

  3. MEAA, who has 1500 freelance members on its books or about 9% of its total membership base,” so, of the 15,000+ “journos” in their union, how many are PR flacks, for corps or government depts?
    As to HufPo-ism, the non sequitor cartoon in Thursday’s SMH put it perfectly; citizen journalism takes us back to the daze of the pseudonymous contributors to the Thunderer, and gossip about the bien pissants of the over privileged, a private income being essential.

    by AR on Apr 28, 2012 at 7:58 pm

  4. Hi Andrew,

    Nice story. Unfortunately you choose the wrong medium to have it published in.

    I am a freelance journalist in Sydney. My stories have been published in many places, sometimes with dubious contracts and limited pay, but always with pay.

    Criky, a publication I otherwise respect, has twice this year accepted stories of mine for publication. And twice your editors have attempted to get me to give (GIVE) you my work for free! FOR FREE!

    I’d be happy to do if — if we lived in a free world. Wouldn’t it be great if everything was free! School fees. The mortgage. Food. Holidays. That’s a great business model you have there. Unfortunately, it’s a scam because even Criky charges people to read their stories.

    Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. ACP and all the others may pay very little, but at least they pay and put value on my work. Why can’t you guys do the same? Hey, maybe ACP or News would pay me to run a story about how Criky takes content off writers for free and then on-sells it to the public?

    by ian neubauer on May 26, 2012 at 9:41 am

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