The Society of Professional Journalists signed on to an amicus brief supporting National Geographic in a lawsuit involving contributors’ rights relating to collective works produced by publishers. How does this serve SPJ or the freelancers who belong to the organization?Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell was a definite asset for freelancers who belong to the Society of Professional Journalists. Most members of the organization are full-time employees of newspapers and magazines. Most freelancers join the organization because SPJ is a guardian of freedom of the press. My own membership fees have connected me to a network of writers and editors around the country, but until Kerri headed the freelance committee, there was scant attention to those who are self-employed.
Kerri worked hard to increase our presence in SPJ. One big accomplishment was the freelancer database she and her committee implemented. Now if an editor is looking for an independent journalist, there’s a handy database full of willing and available writers. She also maintained the SPJ blog The Independent Journalist, listing jobs, opportunities and other information relevant to our trade.
Unfortunately Kerri emailed me this morning, stating she is resigning her position as chair of the SPJ Freelance Committee.
Kerri is leaving because SPJ signed an amicus brief supporting National Geographic in a lawsuit. NG purchased photos from contributors, using the works in print editions. But now the photos are included in a CD-ROM collection.
As an SPJ member, I’m not satisfied with the organization’s explanation justifying signing on to the brief—I fail to see how this fits with SPJ’s emphasis on freedom of information and first amendment rights. SPJ notes in a statement on the Web site:
This case does not harm a contributor’s ability to receive payment for the reproduction of his work when published in the same context of the original. It merely affirms that any such understanding must be expressly written into the contract.
Chances are when some of these contributors signed contracts, a comprehensive CD-ROM collection was an idea unborn. If a CD-ROM of each issue had been produced separately—and written into the contract as such—that would be a different scenario. But a collection of numerous issues in digital form should not fall under the contractual agreement these freelancers signed for usage of their properties in the print edition. The marketing for these products will certainly be different—the approach in selling a subscription is inherently different than that used to sell a collection. We are talking about a completely different entity.
Even federal courts are at odds over this matter. The American Society of Media Photographers says in the case of Florida photographer Jerry Greenberg, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that Geographic had violated Jerry's copyrights by creating and selling the digital collection without permission to use his photographs.
But then the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed almost identical claims by photographer Douglas Faulkner and others.
As digital collections become more popular, issues over rights to intellectual property will surely proliferate.
Freelancers in SPJ have certainly lost a strong advocate. Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell did a great job for us. She really made us feel like we belonged.
I'd have preferred that SPJ at the least stayed neutral in the Geographic brawl--taking sides alienates those of us who may be fringe members, but believe in the mission SPJ built its foundations on.
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Erik Sherman's WriterBiz.
K.C.'s Write for You, Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell's blog