New York Times freelance photojournalists are fighting against a new rights-grabbing work-for-hire contract, and encouraging other photographers not to sign up.
The contract, issued in mid-May, relates to the production of drone footage and specifies that New York Times ‘will own all right, title and interest, including copyright, in the work for all purposes throughout the world’.
Over 130 freelance photographers have signed a petition to negotiate new terms with NYT.
The petition outlines a number of concerns:
– Drone work requires an independent agreement, whereas other capture devices do not;
– The contract appears to be exclusive to drone footage, but then states it covers ‘any other Services you may be commissioned to provide on assignment for the Times’. This may open the door to ‘far more than UAS/drone footage’;
– The contract lacks restrictive language, which may allow it to ‘supersede any previous agreement signed by a Freelancer and control all of the freelancer’s work for the Times going forward’;
– New York Times previously held a co-ownership rights agreement with freelancers’ images, which has been replaced with ‘unilateral ownership by the Times’;
– The contract ‘vaguely’ grants the New York Times the power of attorney over freelancers, which is ‘ripe for abuse’;
– The contract provides unacceptable power to New York Times to refuse payment;
– Freelancers are required to absorb additional costs, such as new training and specialised insurance relating to drone use;
– Freelancers are bound to an undefined and vague code of conduct, and the petition requests greater clarity to the standards.
The petition argues that freelance photographers, unlike staffers, carry equipment costs and insurance, health insurance, and receive no benefits like sick leave, holiday pay, or pension benefits.
‘The New York Times prides itself on a commitment to journalism with an ethos of holding accountable those who would attempt to trespass on the rights of the less powerful. Sadly, this contract is a departure from the very values the Times seeks to uphold. By exploiting a group as vulnerable as international freelance visual journalists, who have no job security, buy their own health care and equipment, and sort out their own pensions, the Times fails to live up to the standards it has set for itself and others. More importantly, were we to accept this Contract, we would be complicit in putting our economic survival in grave jeopardy.’
According to Photo District News, several award-winning photographers spearheaded the movement, and are urging fellow photographers through private social media groups not to touch the contract.
A NYT spokesperson, Danielle Rhoades Ha, told PDN the newspaper has different copyright assignments with contributors for each medium and usage. The ‘standard photographer agreement is unchanged except in instances involving drone photography because those agreements must address compliance with international laws and safety regulations’.
However, she didn’t discuss the rights grab or how the contract extends to ‘any other services’ beyond drone footage.
Based on the photographers’ petition, it seems the contract was written to cover all potential legal issues that may affect the company. It could easily be amended to satisfy the photographers’ demands without opening the paper up to unnecessary liability. However, PDN reports no negotiations have begun.
The protesting photographers sought feedback from a copyright attorney, Bryan D Hoben, who has described the contract as an ‘unfair deal’.
‘This agreement could be held to supersede any previous, non-drone agreement a freelancer has signed and control all aspects of the freelancer’s work for [The New York Times] going forward,’ he wrote in a letter to photographers. ‘This is either sloppy contract construction or a bold attempt to subvert whatever previous ownership model exists… I would strongly advise either amending it or not signing it.’
Photography contracts are routinely adjusted and reissued, and sometimes this comes at the detriment of the photographer. Typically in the form of a rights grab or rate cut.
Award-winning US photojournalist, Kenneth Jarecke, says the problem boils down to an oversupply of photographers, creating a super-competitive environment.
He argues there are up-and-coming photographers willing to sign the contract for the short term benefits, even though they are aware they are disadvantaging the freelance community in the long term.
‘The New York Times makes a lot of money by syndicating work that was originally produced by freelancers. They’re not going to give that up,’ he wrote for Medium. ‘Why should they? Once the contracts start going bad, they don’t just magically get better. Photographers have a long history, going on twenty years now, of signing these things. Why should corporates think they won’t sign them again?
‘Listen, no offence, but when you brag about shooting for the New York Times, or about having a shot in Time magazine, all I see is someone who signed a bad contract. Someone who made the decision to compete on cost, not merit. This group fighting the new contract, signed the old one. That this latest one is suddenly a bridge too far, doesn’t move me.’
His point is that, at a previous time, the award-winning and successful Times photographers organising this protest signed a contract which their elders protested against. In a few years time, the photographers that sign this contract may be up in arms about the future rights-grabbing clauses Eventually, there will no rights left!
Click here to read the petition.