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ASK US WEDNESDAY: “Company approached me to on-sell my writing – what do I do?”

by Leo Wiles
06 June 2018

I’ve been contacted by a company whose business model is repurposing articles by writers for monetary compensation. Basically they want to on-sell my writing to other businesses/clients. While it seems like a good idea in theory, I imagine this will throw up all sorts of ownership issues. I can’t see how it would practically work? Even if writers technically own their work, I can’t imagine the publication or client that commissioned the article would be happy about it being resold elsewhere. Also, would people actually pay for unoriginal content that was published elsewhere?

I asked the company about it and their response was this: “When we first set out on this journey, we were expecting that we would only be dealing with publishers. What we found however is that a lot of the content in magazine archives still belongs to writers. It seems ownership hinges on whether the writer was an employee at the time and if not, the engagement contract that was in place. There are quite a few scenarios where the writer was not employed, nor was there a contract in place, which we understand to mean that the writer holds the copyright for any content created under this scenario.”

What do you guys think about this? Seems a bit odd to me. L

We heard about this company – they’re currently trawling through a database of Australia’s talented writers with a large body of work behind them, and waiting to see who will bite.

Say their business model IS as simple as photographers on-selling images through a stock photo library. Then (like photographers) writers need to be aware of the previous licensing rights you sold wittingly or not along with your pre-published copy.

When I worked as a syndication officer in London for ACP, I’d buy and sell words, pictures and full features from overseas magazines and newspapers. They’d then be distributed within the Park St magazine titles. The rights ranged from first rights in Australia /New Zealand /Australasia or even worldwide depending on the story. The amount of paperwork was huge and none of the ACP titles paid up without the rights being sold.

On returning home, I heard constantly about how new contracts were sewing up all our rights. And how if you didn’t sign, they would no longer commission you. Which makes me think if you have worked for ANY of the top Australian publishers, you need to be very careful that you actually own your copy for any pieces you have written since the early 90s.

If you are thinking that it was so long ago who cares, please note that a feature I wrote for a parenting mag ended up in body+soul years later. Meaning that someone is keeping a very close eye on archived digital copies. Bottom line: if the publishers had you sign away your rights and you on-sell your writing later, there could be far-reaching legal consequences.

Of course, there may be some writers who have work pre-90s contracts, or perhaps more sway than I. Or maybe they had better legal advice and didn’t on-sell their rights. But there are some practical and moral questions you need to ask yourself before considering this, including:

  • How big would your cut be if you on-sell your pre-published work?
  • Where would the copy end up?
  • How true to their original format will they appear?
  • Who is in charge of ‘refreshing’ them?
  • Would you get a final say in seeing the newly edited version before it’s sold?
    Will this new version be carrying your by-line?
  • Would your interviewee have agreed to the interview if they knew it would end up elsewhere?
  • Are you going to be happy with seeing your name on a ‘repurposed’ ‘refreshed’ version of your story?
  • How many times should your piece actually make the rounds before it makes you look unprofessional?
  • If it was newsy and factual will it be updated with correct stats and facts?
  • Finally and perhaps more importantly for your future relationships: how will the client who originally commissioned you react?

As an ex-editor, I for one would have black-balled a writer who replicated a story for my marketplace competitor. As you say, it’s a ‘bit of a moral no-no’ to sell on an article, regardless of who ‘owns’ the content’.

Listers, what do you think? Would you sign up to a platform like this?

Leo Wiles

Leo Wiles has worked as an editor, journalist and PR for over 20 years before recently retraining as a photographer. These days, she spends her time behind a lens, juggling her own clients with her work at Rachel's List, and her three gorgeous but lively kids.

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