Unconscionable contracts

I just had a look at Ann Douglas’s blog post about the new contract Transcontinental Media is asking its writers to sign. It made me think of the contract that QMI, which owns the Sault Star, asked us to sign some months ago.

That contract required freelancers to sign away publication rights and moral rights. It would allow QMI complete ownership of the material, which it could rewrite as it chose and still sign our names to. The writer would not be allowed to re-sell the article, or even to post it on her own blog.

None of this made me happy. The kicker was that, according to Pauline Clark, who has written for the Sault Star forever, the freelance rate has not changed in twenty years.

I don’t need the Sault Star in order to keep myself fed, so I had the luxury of sitting back to think about this, discussing it with a couple of writer friends, and making the decision that I wouldn’t sign. I know that other freelancers signed. I think they may count more on the income than I did, and I understand their decision on one level.

But here’s what Pauline did: she telephoned the Toronto office and spoke to a woman there. After saying she herself hadn’t had a raise in twenty years (yeah, right!) and spouting the company line that it would be “better for everyone” if we all signed, this woman said we didn’t have to sign.

“But can we still write for the Sault Star?” Pauline asked.

“Oh, yes, if your editor wants you to write, you can!”

“And get paid?”

“Oh, yes!”

So that’s what we did. We declined to sign, and to date I’ve had just as much work as ever from Jeffrey. I resold an article I’d written for the Star to another paper, and because I hadn’t signed the contract, I could do that.

And because I didn’t sign, I can tell you about the contract. The last clause was a “shut up” clause, which said if I signed, I couldn’t tell anyone else the terms. So if someone came to me and said, “I’m thinking of writing for the Sault Star,” I couldn’t say, “They take all the rights, you know, not just first publication.”

I have a constitutional hatred of being muzzled.

Now Ann Douglas has decided not to write for Transcontinental. (You can find the post here – the contract link is in the comments.) It’s possible that they really do make you sign the contract before they’ll assign you an article. They may not let you away with not signing.

Pauline showed, however, that the “sign here or else” gambit may be a bluff, at least sometimes. Her experience and mine, going on writing for the Star sans contract, shows that you may be able to get around it, or ignore it.

It’s worth a try. Companies bank on the certainty that they can bully freelancers simply by the size and weight of their presence. The fact that some freelancers unquestioningly signed proves that it works. But it doesn’t have to, as Pauline showed.

Only you can decide whether you need to sign a contract that requires more than you want to give. But it doesn’t hurt to dig in your heels a bit first, at least until you get some answers.

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9 Responses to Unconscionable contracts

  1. I love how these woman stood up for themselves and didn’t allow the publishers to push them around and I’m glad you are still working despite not signing the ‘unconscionable’ contract. 🙂

    • ecreith says:

      We had the luxury of not panicking. Neither of us would be starving without that work, and we knew we could get other work. Not everyone felt as we did, which ws too bad for them.

  2. Reminds me of a technical writer friend who was being bullied by a staffing company to buy $1M in liability insurance. They told her all their contractors had to do it. I told her -which I knew from following the literature that no technical writer had ever been sued in Canada, and no technical writer had ever “succesfully” been sued in the US. And the company backed down from their demand. It isn’t just kids on the playground who need to stand up to bullies.

    • ecreith says:

      How great for her that you knew that! Most people are intimidated when told “you have to”, and it’s important that we support each other.
      I have a friend who told me once, when I was worried about my mortgage, “The banks have to do their blue-suit thing at you, but you can negotiate.” I remember that often when dealing with big corporations.

  3. Ann Douglas says:

    How awesome that you were able to push back, Elizabeth. Way to go!

  4. How awesome that you were able to push back, Elizabeth. Fantastic!

    • ecreith says:

      Thank you! I’ve worked for Canadian Living, too, and loved it, but I can’t support this contract. Thanks for speaking out.

  5. lucinda kempe says:

    I have a constitutional hatred of being muzzled.

    You can be my agent any time, E!

  6. ecreith says:

    Yes, in my spare time! 🙂

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