Shakedown on 43rd Street

Freelancers Asked to Surrender Their Rights—Again

Asked point-blank if the Times would guarantee freelancers the opportunity to work in the future, even if they don't sign over their rights today, Mathis dodged the question. Instead, she said that more than 2000 writers have already stepped up to release their electronic rights, adding, "It really hasn't been an issue for most freelance writers until now."

In recent years, it's become common for publishers to ask freelancers to sign away all their rights—past, present, and future—for no extra pay. (The Voice contract asks freelancers for the nonexclusive right to archive their work in any medium.) But just because it's an industrywide practice to demand the release of these rights doesn't change the fact that it's now illegal for publishers to take them without permission.

Unfortunately, the Tasini case has blown a hole in the Times' credibility. One by one, the company's arguments have turned out to be specious, from its contention that the electronic reprints are merely a "revision" of the original newspaper, to its argument that freelancers will gain something of value by giving up their rights. Says Tasini, "It's a sad day when a paper that prides itself on accuracy cannot be trusted for what it says."

Most disingenuous of all is the company's claim that it has no choice but to destroy the historical record—an argument that recalls the Taliban's defacing of two Buddhist statues this spring. Like the Taliban, who are dead set on eliminating the practice of Buddhism, the Times seems intent on stamping out a dangerous subculture—in this case, freelancers who think they deserve to be adequately compensated for their work.

But as the Times' own Tina Rosenberg wrote about the Taliban, attempts to destroy the property of an undesirable culture are not rational, but rather the product of "fanaticism, isolation and fury at the outside world." Mobs threaten their cultural enemies, Rosenberg wrote, out of a mistaken belief that by purifying the past they will succeed in purifying the future. The Times should think twice before engaging in its own version of ethnic cleansing.

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