Platform as Payment: Giving Up Your Copyright

I know this headline is far from funny. And in fact, this post is a bit of an aberration from my usual knee-slapping hilarity. But I think it’s a worthy topic, especially for someone like myself who makes a living off of composing words.

I’ve been branching out and searching for publishing opportunities in the consumer publication and lit journal spaces. I’ve had some success. I just turned in my first piece for the Chicago section of the Huffington Post, and I just got my first assignment from the Chicago section of the A.V. Club. These are all great things.

One thing I have always been very mindful of is what rights I am giving to the publisher of my content, especially when I’m shopping content around on spec. For those that don’t know, “on spec” means that I write the content first and then try to find a buyer as opposed to selling a pitch or receiving an assignment. I avoid selling much more than first serial rights or temporary exclusivity. My belief is that as a writer, all I own is my writing. That is my sole source of income (well, that and the occasional market research study…yes, they pay me to try flavored whiskeys and shaving products). If I give a publisher too many rights, I may lose the ability to make money off of a piece of writing. And that’s no way to run a business.

I bring this up because I am looking at contributing to an online magazine that has a lot of witty and well-written content. It’s kind of like McSweeny’s Internet Tendency but with more of a magazine feel. The only problem is its author agreement. I was turned off immediately after reading the first clause:

1. In exchange for our providing you with this platform for expression, you grant us non-exclusive rights to the Content under copyright including the perpetual and unconditional right to use, publish, reproduce, distribute, sell, perform, translate, and display the Content (including any drawings, images, sounds, video recordings, or other data embedded in the Content and including derivative works based on the Content) for any purpose and in any manner or medium anywhere (the “Rights”).

From what I gather, this means that the site can basically use my writing and sell my writing for whatever purpose, while I stand to make no money off it whatsoever. For example, let’s say a television show is optioned based on a piece (Think “Shit My Dad Says”), then they would have full creative control over the television show while I simultaneously would stand to make no money off of this potentially lucrative deal.

Here’s another scenario. Let’s say I publish a dozen or so pieces on the site. Now let’s say my pieces are quite popular. So the site decides to repackage these pieces and sell them as a collection of essays by Keith Ecker. According to that clause, they can do this, and I stand to make zero money off the deal.

Now, yes, their licensing agreement is “non-exclusive.” But what reputable entity is going to want to license your content from you when another entity basically has complete and unlimited control of it. Not many (if any).

So I’m thinking that this site is still a good platform for me. But I’d limit the content I provide it to no more than two pieces max. Additionally, I would make sure that I would never want to publish those two pieces anywhere else ever. Not even in a collection of my own. I would have to consider them dead to me. The gain for me would be that I could add it to my resume and that the platform might attract me new readers.

I wonder, though, if I’m being too heavy-handed. I mean, do all writers think about this kind of stuff? Should they? I feel that because I make a living off of this content I produce, it’s integral for me and my career to be very protective of who owns it and what happens to it.

I’d love any feedback. What do you all think? Am I being paranoid? Or do I have the right idea?



3 responses to “Platform as Payment: Giving Up Your Copyright

  1. Hopefully your work at Huffington will get better. It can only go up from the pitiful piece on bicyclists.

    Your fantasy that cyclists run red lights, endlessly intimidate pedestrians and generally wreak havoc in the city is just that. A fantasy.

  2. Hey, buddy. Thanks for reading! Here’s another fantasy of mine. You, me, a pair of thongs and a kiddie pool filled with chocolate syrup. We can wrestle this out like men.

  3. I think you are being very smart about what you do, it’s your living and your work, you should protect it as much as you can. Look at what happened to the beatles, every time I hear the commercial that uses there song with the lyrics “Help” I imagine John Lennon kicking Micheal Jacksons ass

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