by Barbara Mende

We used to tell people never to sign a journalism contract if it specified

“work made for hire.” That provision is part of copyright law, and defines

a written work where all ownership rights go to the publisher. Originally

that applied to works like computer manuals, which had no value to

anyone except the computer companies who published them. It wasn’t

meant to apply to newspaper or magazine articles. But publishers have

taken advantage of the fact that a newspaper or magazine can be

considered a collective work, thus eligible as work for hire.

This was important back when authors could resell second and even

third rights. But now, with every piece of journalism appearing on the

web where it will never be removed, that’s meaningless. So just try to

protect the rights you want. Don’t let the publishers retain rights to “any

medium now known or hereafter to be invented or discovered.” Make

them spell out the rights: They can have the movie but you’ll keep the

video game. If you want to use the article later as part of a book, specify

that. If you want to post it on your website, tell them that. If you want

first refusal over any resales, mention that.

Above all, make sure you’re paid enough to justify giving away whatever

rights you can’t keep.

When in doubt, send the contract to and let an NWU

contract advisor look it over. And good luck!