Every time they accept a choice assignment, the freelance ski writers of America brace themselves for dangers ranging from angry bears and crushing avalanches to silent, hidden ravines. But this season, the rugged team is facing a challenge so daunting, it has them hunkered down in the conference room at the lodge.
The challenge: In July, Time Inc., the proud new owner of a pair of Boulder-based glossy magazines called Ski and Skiing, issued a contract asking its writers to give up without compensation “all rights, including copyright” to their work. Facing down grizzlies is de rigueur, say the scribes of snow country, but surrendering copyright is a fate worse than death.
“I have written dozens and dozens of articles,” says Gordon Wiltsie of Bozeman, Montana, a veteran freelance adventure writer and photographer who has contributed to Outside, National Geographic, and Men’s Journal. “But I have never signed a work-for-hire agreement, and I will not sign this one.” (Under a work-for-hire agreement, the publisher owns the work.)
Wiltsie is not alone in seeing the contract as a slippery slope. Forty-four freelance contributors to Ski and Skiing have signed protest letters addressed to their respective editors in chief. In the first letter, dated August 1, the writers invoked the recent Supreme Court ruling that guarantees freelancers “the right to be paid for secondary uses of their work” and accused AOL Time Warner, the owner of Time Inc., of “a blatant attempt to take these hard-won legal rights by coercion.”
The protesters include co-organizers Wiltsie and David Goodman; Ski columnists Warren Miller, Peter Shelton, and Edie Thys; former Ski editor Dick Needham; Stephen Gorman, the author of two bestselling guide books; Michael Finkel, a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine; and Voice contributor Allen St. John. Altogether, the list includes 28 out of 36 current contributors to Ski and Skiing. Wiltsie says they are not just colleagues but friends who have skied and “had fun” together. While he sees their clubbiness as “an advantage that we need to use to the greater good of writers in general,” another writer sees it as a tool they can use to bring the magazines “to a grinding halt.”
Jim Morrison, president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), is not surprised that Time Inc. is asking new writers to sign an “all rights contract,” a demand that has been common in publishing since the mid 1990s. With the rise of high-tech, Morrison says, media companies have the ability “to distribute and resell [editorial content] in efficient and highly profitable ways . . . and they are seeking to gobble up those rights and leverage these stories in every way that they can.”
Like the ski writers, guilds such as the ASJA and the National Writers Union are not trying to stop companies from licensing their editorial content. But as a bloc, these groups believe the publishers should honor the basic principle recently affirmed by the Supreme Court, which Morrison says is “very simple: extra pay for extra uses.”
There is no question that AOL Time Warner sees extra uses for its ski stories. According to travel writer and protest organizer Claire Walter, some Skiing contributors have already found their stories reprinted without their permission—for example, on a Web site run by a ski resort and on AOL’s Travelocity.com. According to The Denver Post, which first reported on the protest, Marriott International has a deal to republish select Time Inc. articles in a new magazine.
And how much of the profit will go to the freelancer? None, if Time Inc. has its way. Wiltsie says that many of his colleagues have written for Ski and Skiing for 15 to 20 years and “have not once received a pay raise. It’s been a dollar a word for as long as any of us can remember.” Traditionally, freelancers forego the salary and benefits of full-time employees, and now, he says, “we’re being asked to give up the resale rights for nothing. . . . It’s an outrage.”
The ski writers do hold themselves in high esteem. According to one e-mail circulated among them, “Not just any freelancer has the credibility—or ability—to write a product review, a resort feature, a technical article or a travel piece to the standards of veteran Ski/Skiing writers.”
ASJA‘s Morrison agrees. “In order to cover a ski resort,” he says, “it helps to have some background, just like a court reporter or anything else.” He cautions that if Time Inc. sacrifices its seasoned writers, readers and advertisers will know the difference.
Andrew Bigford and Rick Kahl, the editors in chief of Ski and Skiing respectively, declined to comment. Wiltsie says no one blames them, because they’re “caught in the middle” of an awkward situation. Indeed, after getting the first protest letter, Bigford and Kahl consulted with higher-ups, and on August 15, the writers received a revised agreement. Time Inc. still wanted the copyright, but it was willing to give writers the nonexclusive right to resell their work 90 days after publication.
Wiltsie calls that “unacceptable.” He says the writers are willing to give Time Inc. first North American serial rights, as they have done in the past, with the “possible concession of certain specified additional rights.” But for this freedom-loving tribe, maintaining the ownership of their work is a nonnegotiable right.
This week, the protesters will send a letter to Time Inc. honchos Norman Pearlstine and John Huey, requesting a face-to-face meeting by the end of September. “The decision makers have very little familiarity with what we do,” says Wiltsie, “and that’s why it’s important to go to New York and make our case.” Walter adds, “We’re not trying to throw down ultimatums. We’re just trying to be reasonable.”
A spokesperson for Time Inc. said, “We value the contributions of our freelancers, and we’re sensitive to the concerns that they’re raising.” He pointed out that the contract in question is the “standard freelance contract” used by Time Inc.—and denied that the contract had anything to do with AOL or the merger. Asked whether the writers will be granted face time on Sixth Avenue, he declined to comment.
Back in Boulder, editors are working on the winter issues of Ski and Skiing. Because September through December are the biggest issues and the mags shut down in the spring, the resolution of this dispute will not be apparent until September 2002. But editors will soon be making assignments for next fall, and Wiltsie says some writers have been told that if they don‘t sign now, there won’t be any work in the future. If Time Inc. does not budge, he says, “the leading columnists and contributors will no longer agree to work for the magazines, and that will be a major loss.”
Walter’s take is equally dire. “If AOL Time Warner cannot be enlightened to what is contractually fair for writers,” she says, “then sometime between now and when the snow falls and melts again, they’re going to have to find a new bunch of unproven writers.” Aspiring gearheads are encouraged to send their résumés directly to Steve Case.