Articles are undoubtedly the dominant form of content on the web. Ah, but who has time to write them? The answer for most sites is freelance writers. Before you start spending a bundle, there are copyright issues you need to consider when paying for articles to be written by a freelancer.
Copyright is one of the few legal terms where the name accurately describes the legal concept at issue. Copyright is the right to copy a creative work. The unstated element of this definition is the right to copy “and sell” a work.
Let’s assume Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games, writes a new novel. Under copyright law, she automatically owns the copyright in the book. She will assign this right to her publisher. In exchange, her publisher will agree to publish the book, get it into bookstores and pay Collins what one might guess is a healthy advance and royalty for each book sold.
Copyright law has long enjoyed an uncomfortable relationship with the web. You only have to look at the lawsuits filed by the book, movie and music industries to see as much. The owner of a copyright can sue for infringement when their work is used without permission.
Let’s consider the movie Prometheus, the prequel to the Alien series. I had high expectations for it…but it was a bit of a disappointment. Regardless, what if I filmed part of the movie while watching it and posted it on YouTube? Would this be a case of copyright infringement? Yes, it would.
Copyright and Articles
So, how does copyright come into play when you are paying for articles? You have probably already figured out the answer. Copyright automatically vests in the author of the work. You are not the author of the work. The freelancer you hired is the author. As a result, they own the copyright to the articles. Yes, this is true even though you are paying them.
What does this really mean? In a perfect legal world, it means the freelancer could sell the articles to other sites as well. It also means the writer could sue you for copyright infringement if you did publish the content.
Of course, this never occurs. A writer who did this would be a former writer quickly once word got out. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a danger of problems arising. There is.
Let’s assume you create a site tailored to growing the perfect garden in one’s backyard. You hire a writer to crank out 100 articles on various gardening subjects. The site takes off and is a tremendous hit. Home Depot makes a very attractive offer for the site that includes a number of commas. You agree to sell it and start browsing yacht sites online.
During the sales process, Home Depot asks for the documentation evidencing copyright ownership of the articles. You can’t produce it because you don’t own the articles. You approach the writer seeking the transfer of the copyright. At this point, the freelancer is not going to be “FREElancing” any longer. The writer is going to demand you pay a good chunk of change for the copyright. Fail to pay it, and the freelancer will be serving infringement notices on the DMCA agent for your host to get your site shut down.
Is there a way to avoid this nightmare scenario? Yes. The answer is to have the writer assign the ownership of the copyright to the articles to you. This assignment is handled either through a contract or a copyright assignment. Copyright assignments are not the strongest legal documents, so contacts are preferable.
Once the transfer occurs, it is advisable to give the public notice of the change. This is accomplished by filing the notice of ownership change with the Copyright Office. If Home Depot then shows up with bags of money, you are golden and so is that swank yacht you are going to buy.
Web Paper House?
Wait. Most people never sign any contract or copyright transfer with their writers. Does this mean most of the web is just a paper house waiting to fall?
It is a disaster waiting to happen. At some point in the future, some plucky group of article writers is going to make a copyright infringement claim. All hell will break loose. Make sure your site isn’t one of the targets of such an attack. Contact me today to get a short contract or copyright assignment prepared for your writers.
Richard A. Chapo, Esq.