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Natl Writers Union FAQ, Part 3/4: E-Rights & Membership

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Archive-name: organizations/union/natl-writers/part3
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Last-modified: 2004 Oct 31
Version: 7.1.9 7.1.9vr-usenet

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		   National Writers Union
	  Usenet newsgroup: alt.union.natl-writers

Maintained by: (Vicki Richman)
NWU staff:

                         PART THREE

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	       Copyright 2000 Vicki Richman.
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                         PART THREE
o  Section 3:  Electronic Writing

    3.0.  What are you doing online?

    3.1.  I've HTML-ized my work for my Web site, but my publisher
          claims all rights to it and won't let me post it.

    3.2.  What are electronic rights?

    3.3.  I write code. Why should I join a union that puts me in
          the same campaign as an advertising copywriter?

o  Section 4:  Membership
    4.0.  So, how can I join?

Section 3:  Electronic Writing

3.0. What are you doing online?

The 1998 Delegates Assembly voted not to actively attempt to
organize "computer programmers" into the National Writers
Union, unless they meet some other membership criterion.
Presumambly, "computer programmers" means code writers and
perhaps Web designers.

The motion was sponsored by the former and present chairs of
the New York local, who preferred that Union organizing
funds be spent only on authors and writers in traditional
human languages.

Writers need an unfettered Internet as much as professors,
students and other professionals do. The electronic media
are both tools and products to us. Some of us are on the
printed page. Some of us are on multimedia disks or on the
Web. Some of us use words. Some of us write code.

We all need to protect the way we earn a living. The NWU
suite of online services adds to the protection the union
has provided since 1981, and it helps to organize the
unorganized -- electronic writers, code-writers,
online-forum moderators, multimedia artists, Web authors and
designers -- into our union of all creative workers using
the quill, pen or keyboard.

3.1. I've HTML-ized my work for my Web site, but my publisher
     claims all rights to it and won't let me post it.

The copyright -- or all-rights -- grab has indeed become a
major beef for writers.

Copyright law assigns a copyright to the human author by
default. The author need do nothing to keep the copyright --
the author has to do something to lose the copyright.

To earn a living, the author typically sells -- or *leases*,
to be more precise -- certain rights to a publisher. The
various rights are defined by contract, not by law, but the
rights all derive from copyright law. That is, only the
copyright owner may sell or lease -- or simply define --
subsidiary rights to the copyrighted work.

Typically, a magazine writer sells "first serial rights" to
the publisher. That means that the magazine has the
exclusive right to publish the piece for the first time.
After publication, the writer may sell other rights to other
publishers -- or just post the piece on the Web.

Selling first serial rights worked well in the industry
until the computer and modem were invented. First,
electronic databases -- Lexis/Nexis, for example -- sold
magazine articles online. Both writers and publishers
squawked. Then the publishers realized that they could do it
themselves -- put their print articles into their own
databases or even into electronic magazines on propietary
services or on the Web.

Okay, that solved the publishers' problem, but, contrary to
their claims, a publisher is not necessarily the copyright
owner.  The author, who is the default copyright owner, was
still not getting reimbursed. In fact, the author was not
even consulted, but typically found out about the electronic
infringement by chance.

The publishers fixed the electronic rip-off by running their
own chop shops, selling our intellectual property like used
automobile parts.

Finally speaking for themselves, writers replied that they
had sold only first serial rights.  Only the writer, we
said, may use the article after it has been published.

Publishers answered that electronic distribution is merely
an extension of the print publication. It is not a new use
for the work, they argued. First serial rights excludes only
publishing the article in another print magazine, they
claimed, but does not exclude an electronic version of the
original print magazine. Whether that argument will stand up
in court remains to be seen.

But, wisely fearing that their argument would be held
specious by the courts, publishers began covering their
asses by offering new contracts to writers. Those contracts
changed "first serial rights" to "all rights, including
electronic rights or rights in any medium not yet invented."

Even worse, some publishers -- like the _New York Times_ --
made freelance writers sign work-for-hire contracts. That
means that the author surrenders copyright ownership to the
publisher. The owner does not merely sell all rights; the
author gives away ownership of the copyright entirely.

Work-for-hire contracts are particularly distasteful. They
use a loophole in the law. The work-for-hire sections of
copyright law were meant for salaried employees or for
writers under contract to produce technical manuals or
catalogs. Work-for-hire was never intended to include
journalists, essayists, and other creative freelancers.

So the suggestion that work-for-hire or all-rights contracts
are "common" misses the point. They may be common this year,
but they are exceptional in the history of publishing.

What can writers do? We can refuse to sign such contracts.
The National Writers Union has its own model contracts for
use by its members. We can insist on using an NWU contract
instead of the one our publishers offer. If enough writers
hold out, the publishers may agree to make NWU contracts
standard industry practice.

We can also ask for additional payment for any right beyond
first serial rights. If a contract pays $1000 for
work-for-hire, the writer may reply, "A grand is my fee for
first serial rights. I'll take another $150 for electronic
rights. Work-for-hire will cost you five grand."

The writer probably won't get more money for the piece, but
the publisher, who is really only interested in getting the
magazine on the stands, may agree to buy only first serial
rights. That is, the writer will retain all other rights for
the same fee.

(The figures cited are for anecdotal illustration only. No
union scale or standard rate is implied or should be
inferred. See Question 2.1.1 for a discussion of union

3.2. What are electronic rights?

The NWU has released a position paper on E-rights. Its
principal author is Phil Mattera, a national vice-president.


Or E-mail:

3.3. I write code. Why should I join a union that puts me in
     the same campaign as an advertising copywriter?

Our democratic structure allows any member to work toward
organizing new and different campaigns. (See Question 2.2.1,
on our three campaigns.) That's why.

For now, we have found that business, instructional and
technical writers have too much in common with digital
artists to be in separate campaigns. Whether print or
digital, most commercial writers work under contract as
quasi-employees. Many print writers are trying to expand
into electronic writing. Many already do both.

If enough exclusively electronic writers join the union,
they may split from the Business, Instructional, Technical,
Electronic Writing Campaign (BITE) into their own campaign.

In addition to BITE, we have two largely print campaigns --
Book and Journalism. The new millenium may see a largely
digital campaign, as younger writers join the union.

Section 4:  Membership

4.0. So, how can I join?

Membership in the NWU is open to all qualified writers, and
no one shall be barred or prejudiced within the union on
account of age, disability, gender, ideology, literary
genre, nationality, race, religion or sexual orientation.

You are eligible for membership if you have published a
book, a play, three articles, three short stories or five
poems. You are also eligible for membership if you have
gained professional assignments for an equal amount of
newsletter, public-relations, technical, commercial,
government or institution copy, or for an equal amount of
electronic code-writing, multimedia or Web work or online or
BBS copy. You are also eligible for membership if you have
written an equal amount of unpublished material and are
actively writing and attempting to publish your work.

To get an application, email to:

or visit:


Voice, fax, and snail-mail data are at the end of Part Four.

Here are some data requested by the application:

    GENRES: Journalism, fiction, nonfiction, academic,
    juvenile, Web design, business, technical,
    literary/small press, institutional/nonprofit, labor
    public relations, poetry, code-writing.

    FORMATS: Books, magazines, newspapers,
    miscellaneous copy, multimedia, CD ROM, software.

    Please list all publishers, publications, firms, and
    institutions for which you have worked as a writer in
    the past three years. This information will be for
    internal use only.

    In which local to belong?
       Los Angeles;
       Michigan, Southeastern;
       Minneapolis/St. Paul;
       New England, Western;
       New Jersey;
       New York City Metropolitan Area;
       San Diego (At-Large sublocal);
       San Francisco Bay Area;
       Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay;
       Tucson (At-Large sublocal);
       Washington DC;
       Westchester/Fairfield (in Connecticut and New York states);
       At Large.
    Please check those areas in which you can contribute to
    building the union: Book Campaign, Journalism Campaign,
    New Technologies Committee, Business Instructional
    Technical Electronic Writing Campaign (BITE), Political
    Issues Committee, African-American Caucus,
    Asian-American Caucus, Latina/Latino Caucus, Native
    American Caucus, Queer Caucus, Women's Caucus.

    You are asked, but may opt out of citing: your gender;
    your birthdate; your ethnicity or race; your sexual
    The NWU directory lists members, their genres, and a
    short statement. The directory is distributed to
    publishers and employers. Do you wish your name,
    address, and phone number to be listed?

--------END PART 3/4--------CONTINUED IN PART 4--------

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