Issues facing freelance writers in 2021: Copyright protection

Some issues that freelancers face are universal — things like getting paid on time, navigating taxes and managing your career. Freelance writing comes with its own challenges, from copyright and contract considerations to libel and slander claims. That’s why our team at Dinghy, together with Freelancers Union, recently brought together a panel of industry leaders to offer freelance writers key advice for running their businesses.

If you missed the event, don’t sweat. This blog is the second in a series recapping our panelists’ key insights. (Also check out our first post-event blog on rates and negotiating.)

Umair Kazi, Director of Advocacy and Policy at The Authors Guild on Copyright and Protecting Your Work

Umair Kazi is the Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Authors Guild, the nation’s professional organization for writers, aiding and protecting authors’ interest in copyright, fair contracts, and free expression since 1912.

With a master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia University and a degree in law from the University of Iowa, Umair has a unique blend of expertise that he puts to work leading the Author’s Guild’s advocacy efforts and lobbying for author rights.

Drawing on his expertise in copyright, Umair warns writers that there is “an entire universe of different ways in which work of authorship is exploited.” Educating writers about how to protect their work, he emphasized the following points:

Copyright is a bundle of six exclusive rights.

All writers should understand what copyright entails in a nutshell. Umair explains, “Copyright is actually a bundle of rights and there are six exclusive rights that a creator of a work or an author has.” They include: 

  1. The right to make copies of the work.
  2. The right to prepare derivative works. (e.g., new works that incorporate material from an existing work, such as adaptations, audio books or movies)
  3. The right to distribute copies of the work to the public.
  4. The right to publicly perform the work. (e.g., for playwrites and authors of music scores)
  5. The right to publicly display the work. (e.g., primarily for works of visual art)
  6. The right to perform sound recordings publicly through digital audio transmission. (e.g., for musical recordings)

Ideas alone are not protected by copyright.

“Just because you create something doesn’t necessarily mean there’s copyright,” he notes. “The specific requirement is that it has to be an original work that is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. That basically means that ideas are not protected. There has to be sufficient detailing of the originality and it has to be written down, recorded or exist in some sort of tangible form.”

Copyright in the U.S. is framed as an economic right.

“Copyright is a right, but it’s also ownership of your work,” Umair says. “It’s an important right in the sense that in many countries it’s considered an inalienable right — almost like a right of speech. It’s a natural right. In the United States, it’s framed in some respects as a natural right but primarily as an economic right; the author’s economic right to have a limited monopoly over their work.”

Writers should carefully consider copyright as it relates to contracts and the bargaining process.

“If you’re writing web copy for a very specific niche business, like a mattress brand — something you wouldn’t otherwise use in your work — then you might say OK, I’ll make this a work for hire. It makes sense for the company that’s hiring me to have ownership of this. In that respect, you can negotiate an upfront services fee and divest yourself from those rights,” Umair explains. “But if you’re a journalist, you can use that piece in an anthology or you can create a podcast out of it. There are so many other licensing opportunities now for those works. You really don’t want to give up your rights for a 5,000-word investigative journalism piece, and I’ve seen that happen quite frequently unfortunately.” 

He adds, “It’s so important to really carefully read the contract, especially now. A lot of digital media outlets are looking for ways to become multi-channel content providers, because they’ve seen how lucrative the podcast space is or how lucrative the short web documentary space is. With that in mind, freelance writers will start seeing contracts where the digital media outlets they’re writing for are not just asking for rights to publish the work. Even if they’re letting you retain the copyright, they might be asking for a more expansive grant of rights.”

“Writers should think more about how instrumental their piece is in these downstream channels,” advises Umair. “The publication wants the piece because they want the story. The story that the writer has worked on and given expression to. Without that expression, you don’t get those adaptations, you don’t get those short documentaries. It’s hard to really put a number on it. If you write a piece that’s very popular, you’re generating a lot of good ad revenue for the publication. That could be something you take the next time you submit something to increase your rates.”

Copyright is undoubtedly complex, which is why writers sometimes find themselves in hot water for accidental or alleged copyright infringement. The good news is that freelance writer insurancebrought to you by Freelancers Union in partnership with Dinghy and NSM Insurance Group provides media liability coverage for claims of copyright infringement, as well as legal fees to defend your name, and much more. Learn more and get a free quote online in minutes.

To hear more from Umair and our other panelists — which include Wudan Yan, Independent Journalist and Co-founder of The Writers’ Co-op; Ryan Goldberg of the Freelance Solidarity Project; and Rob Hartley, Co-Founder of Dinghy, offering first-of-its-kind freelance writer insurance — view the recorded event. Plus, stay tuned for insights from other panelists coming soon.

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