The Fact That It Took Me 17 Years to Be Fairly Compensated Shows Freelancers Are Not Afraid to Use Their Legal Muscle

The settlement of the Electronic Rghts copyright suit is sending a message to business owners.
The Fact That It Took Me 17 Years to Be Fairly Compensated Shows Freelancers Are Not Afraid to Use Their Legal Muscle
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Associate Editor
5 min read

In August of 1986, I was a young reporter covering what turned out to be a big, big story in the marshes of eastern North Carolina. The descendants of slaves at Somerset Place Plantation, near Creswell, N.C., organized a "reunion" (of sorts). Hundreds showed up at the historic site to schmooze with long-lost relatives, eat picnic lunches and poke their heads inside the alarmingly tiny reconstructed slave cabins.

Alex Hailey of Roots fame showed up. All the state newspapers covered it. The Washington Post covered it. So did The New York Times.

Well, more to the point, I covered it for the Times. It was a plum assignment for a freelancer like me, and it was made possible because the paper's closest national correspondent was on vacation. "A star is born!" I giggled to myself, as I drove the five hours it took to reach the hot, swampy boondocks of Washington County.

Related: Think Freelancers Have Easy, Flexible Lives? Think Again.

Imagine how ecstatic I was the next morning when the Times put my lengthy newsfeature about the Somerset reunion on the Sunday paper's front page. But my happiness was tempered by the fact that I received neither a byline (because the National Desk didn't give them to freelancers in those days) nor the compensation I deserved for devoting an overnight stay and two days to the project.

In fact, I received just $250 for a story that was disseminated by the New York Times Syndicate and splashed across page 1 of pretty much every paper in the country (including my hometown paper in Durham and my mom's hometown St. Petersburg Times).

That's why I was asked, a decade later, by the National Writers Union to become one of five plaintiffs in the landmark lawsuit, New York Times Company v. Tasini, which was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001 and challenged publishers' rights to put independent contractors' work onto electronic databases without their consent. The Times was just one of several publications that were defendants in this suit, which basically modernized copyright law to bring it current with the Digital Age.

Related: 6 Must-Dos When Hiring a Freelancer

The Court decided the suit in the freelancers' favor. And around that time, I took great pleasure in despoiling the back of a payment check I'd received from Newsday -- another of the defendants -- for work I'd done for that paper.

Under the check's endorsement line were printed words to the effect that "Signee agrees to turn over all electronic publication rights to the payer." Nope, not gonna happen, I said to myself, smearing Wite-Out across that mean-spirited claim.

Similarly, I ignored a letter from the Times's legal team, ordering editors at the paper to blacklist us five plaintiffs. I'd already dropped out of the suit for personal reasons, but I was pleased to hear that no editors anyone knew of honored that order.

Another victory for freelancers

Flash-forward to today. Freelancers are still making waves. Today, the Times reported on the $9 million in cash awards made to 2,500 freelancers -- including me -- for the same copyright question the Supremes had decided. This time, a civil suit, filed in 2001, had pitted three plaintiff groups -- the Authors Guild, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Writers Union against several publishers: the Times, Dow Jones, Knight Ridder and Reed Elsever, then-provider of Lexis/Nexis.

I already knew about the rewards checks from this suit -- mine arrived in yesterday's mail. Almost $500. Oh, happy day!

Or should I say happy month. Just a few weeks ago, I became one of the first New York freelancers to benefit from the city's first-in-the-nation freelance protection law. This happened because, earlier this year, I'd had a long-term freelance gig ripped from me by a young, not-so-bright editor at a prestigious business publication. My crime: I'd demanded (politely) to be paid on time, something that previously had never been a problem in the five years I'd freelanced there. I was terminated for that demand.

That act of retaliation was a no-no under New York's law, and the city's Department of Consumer Affairs agreed, helping me to file my claim, which was successful. I was reinstated to the publication's freelance ranks.

My point here isn't just to ballyhoo my victories (well, OK, I'm doing a little of that): It's to point out to business owners that we freelancers -- regardless of our particular specialty -- have some legal muscle, and we're using it. So:

  • Pay your freelancers a market rate and pay it on time; four weeks from the date of the invoice should be the maximum.
  • Provide an up-front written agreement as to what you expect, then honor it.
  • When appropriate, give your freelancers credit for their work (the Times now gives freelancers bylines).
  • Understand that if you get sued or just get negative feedback, it's not personal; it's business.

Related: This Is How I Manage Freelance Workers and Why It Works

And, for my fellow freelancers out there, my message is to do as Sir Winston Churchill once advised. You may be one of those 2,500 freelancers who waited 17 years for those awards checks. But, never, never, never give up.

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