New York Times contributors have organized against an attempted rights grab by the newspaper, issued in the form of a work-for-hire contract for the production of drone footage. Through social media, several prize-winning photographers who shoot for the Times are urging fellow photographers not to sign the contract. They’ve also started a petition—which they say more than 130 photographers have signed—to put pressure on The New York Times to negotiate new contract terms.
“This is a dangerous shift in the industry in terms of taking away the rights that freelancers find it necessary to make a living,” one of the photographers behind the petition told PDN via email. He and other organizers are using closed social media groups to rally group opposition to the contract, rather than confronting the Times individually (or publicly) and risk being singled out as “attackers” or “enemies” of the newspaper.
The contract, distributed in mid May, specifies that The New York Times “will own all right, title and interest, including copyright, in the work for all purposes throughout the world.” The contract’s definition of “the work” is “all videotapes, still photographs and logs resulting from the assignment.”
Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha says the newspaper has different “copyright arrangements” with contributors “for each medium and usage.” In her statement, she said the “standard photographer agreement is unchanged except in instances involving drone photography because those agreements must address compliance with international laws and safety regulations.”
But Rhoades Ha didn’t explain why that compliance requires a work-for-hire agreement that gives The Times exclusive copyright to the images. Moreover, the new contract states that its terms cover not only the capture of drone footage, but “any other service [photographers] may be commissioned to provide on assignment for The Times.”
“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,” copyright attorney Bryan D. Hoben wrote in a letter to photographers who sought his professional opinion about the contract. Hoben added: “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.”
Hoben explained in his letter that, because the contract is a work-for-hire agreement, it provides The New York Times with exclusive ownership of copyright to all assignment work. Previous agreements provided for copyright co-ownership of assignment work between the Times and its contributors. That gave photographers the right to re-license their work to other clients, and the right to defend their copyrights against infringement—rights they wouldn’t have under the new agreement, if they sign it.
The new contract, however, grants the Times power of attorney over contributors who sign the contract “for purposes of executing any documentation necessary to effectuate these rights” (eg, copyright transfer and all usage rights to the photographs and video).
Conceding that the Times is asking for only limited power of attorney, Hoben warns photographers that “it is still unnecessarily risky to cede any part of a person’s legal authority to another, particularly an employer.” He advises the photographers to resist giving power of attorney “any time it appears in an agreement.”
He also criticizes other clauses of the new contract as unfair, including what he calls a “satisfaction clause” that allows employers (in this particular case, the Times) “to unilaterally declare a freelancer or employee’s work unacceptable for any reason whatsoever” and then have no obligation to pay the freelancer.
Organizers against the contract have been spreading word to all Times contributors about Doben’s warnings. In a letter they posted on closed social media groups for journalists, the organizers against the contract wrote, “To be successful in getting this contract amended, it is paramount for us to be able to show that the majority of freelancers do NOT agree to the current terms. To prove that, we have launched a petition to say that we will NOT sign this new contract, along with the specific grievances we have with it.” They added, “By standing together on this, we believe we will be able to…force another more reasonable contract that does not erode our rights of freelancers.”
The goal of the petition organizers was to get at least 100 signatures, and present the petition to editors at The New York Times this week. As of June 13, organizers said they had collected 137 signatures, and had presented the petition to the Times, but had not yet received a response from the newspaper.
One of the organizers told PDN earlier this week that he had raised his concerns about the contract directly with a Times editor, but that editor addressed none of his concerns about the contract, or requests for changes.
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