How to make a go of it on the going rate

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How to Make a Go of It on the "Going Rate"

Keep your copyright

Keep the copyright of everything you write. If you are a freelancer and you write something, it's yours. It doesn't matter who initiated the work -- if you offer it or an editor commissioned it, and you write it, it belongs to you. There is no copyright in ideas; it is the expression of that idea that is protected by copyright. The only way you can sell (or assign) your copyright is in writing and signed by you or on your behalf. If you decide to assign copyright, make sure you are being paid very well.  We recommend that, in general, you don't sign away copyright.

Ask how your work will be used

Think about copyright issues early and find out how the editor wants to use your work. You can license  (i.e. authorise the use of your work) the various rights that make up copyright. For instance, these could be first New Zealand print rights, one-time print rights, web rights etc. You can license them for an indefinite period or for a limited time. In an ideal world, the editor should pay for each separate use, including web rights. If you are planning to try and sell it elsewhere - which we recommend you aim to do - then you may wish to keep the work off the web. You can ask for that to happen. Even if the content is the same in print and on the web, they are not the same publication and should be negotiated separately.

Don't give a non-exclusive licence

Some publishers allow you to keep the copyright in your work, but then ask for a non-exclusive licence to do anything with it, anywhere, forever. This means you lose out; if they want to use it, they should ideally pay for each use. Don't be afraid to haggle; selling your writing is a business transaction after all.

Digital rights

Keep an eye on digital rights. Publishers should not be selling your work on to commercial databases (such as Factiva, ProQuest) without your permission and without paying you for this. (The stoush Tasini v The New York Times was over this issue. Tasini won). In New Zealand, the amendments to the Copyright Act arising out of the digital technology review, which are currently being finalised, will confirm that copyright applies to materials in digital form and will extend the copyright owner’s right in respect of any communication of their work to the public. And so, in an ideal world, you should negotiate a specific payment for each use. The more rights the publisher wants, the higher the upfront fee should be.

Is the publisher a member of the PMCA?

Check whether your publication is a member of the Print Media Copyright Agency (see This copyright collecting agency collects payments for reprographic rights, i.e. the right to copy an article. Freelancers, who own their copyright, are considered special contributors. But freelancers aren't receiving payments as far as we know. Again, asking for an upfront payment for this right won't hurt and will make it easier for you, the freelancer, to benefit from this right.

Confirm in writing

Confirm all your contract details in writing. It doesn't have to be anything formal; an email will do (although we hope to have a contract template here soon). Your email should include confirmation of the length and topic of the article, whether it is words commissioned or words published, what rights you are licensing and for what length of time, what and when you expect to be paid for these rights etc, payment for photos. Getting things clearly in writing early can save a lot of heartache later on.

Meet the publisher's requirements

The freelancer's side of the bargain is to come up with the goods. Good practice is to read the publication so you fit in with their house style; keep to the agreed topic or consult early if the idea doesn't pan out; keep to the agreed length; do all the usual essentials such as checking names, spell-checking copy, clear attribution of information etc. Put your by-line at the beginning of the story and put your phone and email contacts at the foot of the story. Be available for queries. Meet the deadline. And bill the editor on time.

Consider syndication

Keeping copyright means that you can sell your article again to another publisher, here or overseas, if this is consistent with the terms of any licences you have granted. You can tweak old articles for repeat use and sales. You can syndicate your work between papers (in New Zealand this usually only works if it's between papers in the same publishing group). Again by ensuring you have been clear in writing about what rights you are licensing, no publisher can be surprised.

Don't "work for hire"

Remember: as a freelancer you start out with economic ownership of everything you produce independently. Don't "work for hire" and don't give away your rights. By owning your work, YOU are able to exploit it and are better placed to make a go of the "going rate."

This page has been based, with permission, on the NUJ's Rate for the Job website. See for more.