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Freelance journalism 101
Copyright 101

On Your Own: A Guide to Freelance Journalism

> Home

> Introduction: The freelance side of life

Freelance journalism 101

> Vocabulary lesson

> Dollars and sense

> Contracts are essential

> Copyright 101

> Dressing for success as a freelancer

> Staying productive even when you’re not working

Business matters

> Five reasons to pay attention to business

> Contracts and copyright — beyond the basics

> Getting your business organized

> Separating yourself from your business

> Keeping track of business

> Taxing matters

> Insurance considerations for freelance journalists

Making a living

> Time and money

> Budgeting without a salary

> A simple way to boost your pay: Ask

> Retirement planning: Where to stash your cash?

Finding work

> Finding your way to work

> Trolling the web for work

> Inspiration for finding the story

> Brainstorming ideas you can sell

> Pitching your way to a full story calendar

> Tips on freelancing for newspapers

Marketing yourself

> Paying attention to business

> Making a home for your business on the web

> Networking: the key to staying happy and fed

> Business cards help make the best first impression

Tools of the trade

> Why journalism ethics matter

> Four tips for better self-editing

> Selected websites for finding freelance journalism assignments

> Journalism organizations

> Journalism reading list

To be successful as a freelance journalist, you need to understand your ownership rights in the work you produce and how you can protect those rights.

The first thing to know is that it doesn’t matter whether you are a writer, producer, editor or photographer, whether you write words, create images and graphics, produce audio or video, or select contents and pull them together into a publication. Once you create something and fix it on paper or in a digital file, you own it.

Under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, it doesn’t matter whether the story came first and you shopped it around to find a publisher, or a client enlisted you to create it — even if that client had a particular story in mind. It’s yours.

Regardless of the medium or the sequence of events, you are entitled to be paid fairly for your work, in whatever form it is used. As a business owner, it’s important to understand that what you produce often has value beyond the scope of the immediate project, and you need to protect your right to realize that value.

For example:

In both of these cases, your rights under the Copyright Act depend on what you and the client agreed to when you took the assignment, and on what further agreements you have made since then.

Copyright is actually a bundle of rights that protect your “original work of authorship” as soon as the work is “fixed in a tangible medium of communication.” A fact or an array of facts is not an original work of authorship, but your expression, explanation or summary of those facts is your own work. Verbally recounting an event to someone else does not trigger copyright protection, but recording your words on paper, in computer memory or as a digital recording does. The protection is there immediately. You don’t have to do anything more.

It follows, then, that if you wrote the assigned story for the U.S. magazine in the first example above and the client’s group wants to publish the story in a European affiliate, they need to ask your permission, and they should pay you for the second use. Your sale of exclusive publication rights to the client for which you wrote the in-depth article in the second example does not bar you from using information you gathered while researching the story in a different publishing product — unless you agreed that the client would own all your work product.

Protecting what you own

Retaining ownership of your work does not automatically keep others from violating your copyright. If you blog about something and the American Society for the Prevention of That Thing republishes it without your permission, they have infringed your copyright and should have to pay you for using your work.

It’s often difficult to prove ownership, even more difficult to demonstrate significant damages and generally more expensive to sue than you will get in return. To remedy this situation, the Copyright Act provides an incentive to register your work. The incentive is that if someone uses your registered work without permission, you are entitled to triple the amount of provable damages and any attorneys’ fees you pay to assert your ownership rights. Better still, if you register your work within 90 days of “first publication,” you get these benefits retroactively.

First publication occurs when you show your work to someone else, not when it appears in print or on the web. So, if you write a story March 1, a publisher rejects it a month later and you register it May 15, you could collect treble damages and attorneys’ fees if the publisher uses your work without paying for it.

Similarly, if you send a 1- or 2-page story idea to a client as a query, you can register the summary before starting work on the story. That will help greatly if a publisher rejects your proposal and a few months later publishes a substantially similar staff-written story.

Contributor: Robert S. Becker


Copyright registration made easy

Copyright registration is easy and inexpensive, and greatly enhances your ability to protect your work. You can register you work online, upload an electronic copy and pay the fee with a credit card.

If you are a prolific freelancer, you can avoid the nuisance and expense of registering the copyright for each article you produce by routinely using a process known as “group registration.” The advantage of group registration, according to the U.S. Copyright Office, is that it allows any number of published works to be registered with a single deposit, application and registration fee.

To be eligible for group registration, all the works must be produced by the same author or group of authors within a 12-month period, and all must have the same copyright claimant. The Copyright Office cautions, however, that in case of infringement, statutory relief can be claimed retroactively only for works registered within 90 days of first publication.

If you have incorporated your business or otherwise work through a business structure, you may register the copyright for work you produced during the registration period in the name of your business. However, if your work during that period includes some articles you co-wrote with others, or if a contract calls for joint ownership of the copyright, those works may not be included in the group registration.

To accomplish group registration, copyright holders must use the online eCO system. Written works (including news, features, articles, essays, reviews, editorials, columns and other non-fiction writing) are designated Contributions to Periodicals TX, while photographs, drawings, illustrations, cartoons, and other visual works are designated Contributions to Periodicals VA. If the contributions contain “multiple types of authorship,” the Copyright Office says to select the option that best describes the predominant form of authorship in the contributions. The Copyright Office does not appear to provide for registration of groups of audio recordings, which are registered individually on Form SR, or videos, which are registered as Performing Arts on form PA. However, it appears that these works can be included in group registrations of works created in multiple types of media.

Along with the forms and fees, the registrant must include a complete copy of each work included in the group registration. These copies may be originals, photocopies, tear sheets or photographs, as long as all contents of the works are clear and legible.

Contributor: Hazel Becker


Last updated: June 2018

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