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No pictures this time – just words about words and pictures!

These are difficult times for the freelance journalist and photographer, not just in Finland but everywhere. I’ve just been to the World Travel Market in London where I met and was able to compare notes with many of my fellow members of the British Guild of Travel Writers. The trends affecting travel journalism – and journalism in general – know no national boundaries, it seems. Even so, there is something shocking about the way things are going in Finland – a country that traditionally holds creative pursuits in high esteem and where the conventions of copyright have been respectfully observed.

In a nutshell, for readers who do not know, media companies in Finland are requiring freelance contributors to sign agreements that pass all rights to their work, both texts and images, to those companies, without appropriate compensation. The contracts are being presented initially as non-negotiable conditions of freelance employment – sign the agreement or you won’t be asked to work for us again. Union influence in these matters is not as strong as it used to be but our representatives are doing what they can to argue our case and to negotiate and modify the terms of the agreements.

If I sign these agreements, it means that articles and images that have been created at my suggestion and at my initiative will become the exclusive property of their first publisher, who will subsequently be at liberty to exploit them potentially to produce more revenue without giving me a share in that revenue. This devalues the professional skills and experience which I have acquired to produce that material and will ultimately deter new talent, meaning that the media companies will have to turn increasingly to people who are more interested in seeing their names in print than pursuing and developing the craft of journalism, whatever its field.

There are those in the media business, including journalists and photographers, who argue that the idea of copyright is redundant in the landscape of new media and technology. What we can all agree on is that there is an upheaval going on and that change is not only inevitable, it’s already happening. What is disturbing is the way that media companies are treating their contributors, many of whom have been instrumental in building the reputations of their publications and without whom there would be no publication. On the one hand, publishers like to claim that the reader is their number one priority. But the fact that they are forever blurring the line – admittedly already fairly obscured – between editorial and advertorial confirms that, more than ever, the wishes of the advertiser come first. One big Finnish media company dispensed with more than 60 editorial and marketing staff earlier this year – and almost immediately advertised for advertorial producers, in partnership with some of the country’s biggest companies that also happened to be some of its most conspicuous magazine advertisers.

Magazines and newspapers have always relied on advertisers, of course, and always will. Media houses are facing financial challenges, although this sometimes becomes a bit of an unchallenged mantra: although they can mean new and more opportunities, new media are being used more and more as a blanket excuse for cutting costs. At least one magazine whose contributors are being asked to sign the dreaded agreement is planning to increase its publishing frequency, which suggests it sees an opportunity to make more revenue. This revenue is being produced largely by the value of freelance contributions. Yet increasingly this value is being eroded. It isn’t even so much the idea of selling copyright as a principle to which many of us object – it’s the idea of not getting paid an appropriate sum if we decide, having been given a choice, that this is what we will do.

“People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing,” writes Tim Krieder in the New York Times in an article headed  Slaves of the Internet Unite!. Many people are of the opinion that the Internet and all its contents are, by nature, free. In common with many people, I like to read newspapers like The Guardian online. Yet, to quote its own web site in July 2013, “the Guardian News & Media cut its annual loss by 30% to £30.9m in the year to the end of March 2013, as growing digital revenues helped offset the continuing decline in income from print operations”.

“A sharp increase in the contribution of our digital operations to revenue was a striking feature,” said Andrew Miller, chief executive of GMG. “Having committed to digital earlier than our peers, we are now reaping the benefits.”  

Here is an extract of copyright terms offered to Guardian image contributors, recognizing fairly the rights of both publisher and contributor (this is just one clause of a lengthy and detailed set of conditions):

Right to make Spot Sales of and/or Syndicate your Commissioned Contribution exclusively for 60 days after first use in the Licensed Products and thereafter non-exclusively subject to payment to you of 50% of all net receipts paid to GNM and attributable to your Commissioned Contribution.

You may re-use your Commissioned Contribution during the term of the Licence, provided that our Syndication Department is consulted and there is no conflict of interest. You agree to use your best endeavours to include an acknowledgement such as “First published in …” and a link to the theguardian.com network of websites.

For the avoidance of doubt, all rights of whatever nature (without limitation, copyright) throughout the world which you have in your Commissioned Contribution other than those you expressly grant to us under this Licence are retained by you.

Seems to work for The Guardian, which admittedly has a much wider market than any Finnish outlet. But it also suggests that the Internet can be a source of opportunities, not a threat to profit and simply an excuse to cuts costs, and that all its creators can have something approaching a fair share in their creation.  

I would have been sufficiently motivated to write this anyway, but the last straw came in the form of the news that one media house is reputedly presenting a contract to its freelancers that includes securing all rights for material used by them even before the agreement is signed – that is, historically backdated!

To end on a happy note: one of my photos has been shortlisted in the Single Image category of the Travel Photographer of the Year competition. It’s really hard to win anything in this, and to be shortlisted is a kind of achievement, so I’m very pleased, although you can keep your fingers crossed for me on the final judging day in early December! This is one of the world’s leading travel photo competitions, run by people who are dedicated to photography as a non-elitist skill that can be enjoyed, improved and developed by everyone. It’s also completely dedicated to the idea of copyright and of making sure its contributors get paid appropriately every time their images are re-used.