Thursday, August 9, 2007

SPJ president explains support for National Geographic in lawsuit filed by freelancer

Absent the front pages of most newspapers today is a story about an organization ensconced in the newspaper realm for almost a century. The story actually impacts publishers and content providers in all media. In simple terms, the Society of Professional Journalists has filed an amicus brief supporting National Geographic in a lawsuit brought by a photographer whose last name is Faulkner and others whose images were used in the magazine’s print edition. Geographic decided the magazine also owned rights to those images for use in a CD-ROM collection comprising numerous issues of the print edition. Two federal courts are at odds over who actually owns the rights. This is a simplistic explanation. Writer Erik Sherman offers the nitty gritty at his WriterBiz blog.

When I learned SPJ had filed the brief on behalf of Geographic, I immediately questioned the wisdom of an organization whose membership includes both publishers and freelancers. It seemed to me neutrality offered the best path for SPJ. In other words, this is not SPJ’s fight. In my opinion, seizing the opportunity for battle was not a wise move.

As a result of SPJ support for Geographic, the chair of SPJ’s freelance committee and one employee resigned. On message boards related to professional writing organizations, on telephones in freelancers’ offices and on blogs written by freelancers, the issue has become a hot topic.

Many of us will not renew our membership as a result of SPJ’s decision. Others who were about to join have shredded their applications.

SPJ president Christine Tatum has a rather eloquent blog entry at Freedom of the Prez, whereby she defends the organization’s decision, made by Tatum and the Legal Defense Fund Committee chair, to support Geographic. Without meaning to, I’m sure, she infused a bit of humor into the fracas. Here’s what Tatum wrote:

“I stand by the decision I helped make because it stands to help clarify law so that freelancers can negotiate smarter contracts that help ensure they're paid fairly for their work. It might sound odd - even ludicrous to some - but a ruling in favor of a publisher in this case actually could help all freelance journalists well into the future.” The decision was made, she says, “…After very, very careful consideration.”

If you really, really believe that argument, I have a Pulitzer Prize I’d like to sell you.

SPJ might have made a conciliatory statement about this matter, averting what should have been obvious: impending alienation of the freelancers in the organization’s midst.

If contracts for freelancers are an issue, you’d think there’d be information plastered all over the SPJ Web site. Prior to joining, when I heard the organization’s name, SPJ—to me—stood for freedom of the press, and for protecting my rights as a journalist to information held in government files. I never envisioned SPJ as an organization involved with contracts between freelancers and publishers, and I doubt any of the other freelance members did either. That’s what I have organizations like the American Society of Journalists and Authors for.

Federal courts disagree about Geographic’s use of the materials, so we are not likely to resolve the right and wrong on blogs or phones or message boards. For one thing, the legal brief is as long as the community phone directory we get here in our neighborhood.

Tatum writes, “A ruling in favor of National Geographic Society is a relatively rare opportunity to help advance that very important and far more progressive discussion. It would add clarity to the law and protect journalists by improving their chances of receiving fair compensation.”

This reminds me of the impact made on my driving by a handsome officer who handed me a ticket for speeding.

Absent this entire sequence of events is a large dose of common sense. Geographic could have paid their contributors a reprint fee for digital use in a collection, one that will surely be profitable, and that society may have saved large payments to legal firms, and none of this would have been an issue. Does a publication really prefer paying a lawyer rather than a contributor? What does that say about the moral standards of such a publication?

I plan to cancel my membership in the National Geographic Society too.

I’ll hand it to SPJ president Tatum. She did a fine job of crafting words to justify SPJ’s decision. What’s missing is the logic. There’s a hole in the foresight as significant as one famous emperor’s new clothes.

And now that I think of it, I actually have two Pulitzer Prizes for sale. Cheap. I’ll engrave your name right on the front of them. Email me for details.

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