Credit: Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Almost every journalist, especially freelancers, have been in this situation. You are flicking through your social media feed only to discover that your own content published on another website without your permission.

Panic can set in, especially for inexperienced reporters, leaving them questioning how to resolve the issue. So where do you stand if this happens to you, and what are your rights when it comes to the content you produce?

David Mascord, editorial trainer and journalism and media law lecturer at Bournemouth University, explained that in the UK, everything that you produce, from a piece of writing, to photographs, to infographics and even music, is automatically covered and protected by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Whilst news, facts and information are not subject to copyright, the creation of a story from those facts is.

It means that is it perfectly legal for your work to be quoted by journalists and news organisations under 'fair dealing', but not simply lifted in its entirety or more than a 'substantial' amount.

"Substantial obviously suggests an amount, but it can also mean the importance as well," he explained.

However, images are a separate discussion. There is a misconception that videos, images or other creative works on social media are free to use. As Mascord points out, this is far from the reality.

"Pretty much every platform that I’ve come across says if you post your material on our platform, you’re giving Twitter a license to allow it to be shared within Twitter and its related APIs, such as Hootsuite, but it doesn’t mean you have given away the copyright and that it is no longer yours.

"If somebody comes along and wants to use that photo and put it on their website, that’s not what you’ve agreed to when you’ve posted it on Twitter. Just because it’s easy to access does not make it free to use."

Mascord highlighted a recent Twitter spat over an image of tourists climbing Mount Everest, which was widely published in the press but often not correctly credited.

Sarah Kavanagh, from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), said that there are actions that journalists can and should take, such as watermarking images, to try and prevent content being used without permission.

However, she admitted that these measures are not foolproof, and people will still find ways around it.

This is why knowing your rights is so important, she explained, as the issue of copyright infringement is massive in the industry and the NUJ is often the first port of call for people running into this problem.

"A third of our entire membership is now freelance and obviously copyright is a crucial part of being able to make a living as a freelance journalist," she said.

When journalists find themselves in the position where their copyright has been infringed, Mascord said they should not shy away from seeking a financial resolution.

"That’s your right. You’ve put time, labour, energy and skill into producing a work, in which case you have the right to request payment if you think it’s worth money."

He said that an aggressive tone is not necessary when reaching out to a publication that has used your work, regardless of how aggrieved you might feel.

Instead, he advises to acknowledge positively that they have used your work, but to assert your rights. There is no harm in simply stating that you expect your copyright to be recognised with a suitable fee.

But the problem for less experienced journalists is knowing what a reasonable amount is to ask for. Mascord recommended looking at the NUJ’s freelance fee guide, or asking the publication what their normal rate is for such work.

Kavanagh explained that the NUJ provides an extensive range of advice and support for journalists, including getting commissions and sorting out contracts.

It also has a regularly updated ‘Rate for the job’ website which allows journalists to anonymously submit the rate they have been paid for a piece of work or a shift, so you know the going rate for your services.

"To be a member of the NUJ as a freelancer, you are absolutely in a better position than being a freelance journalist on your own because you have access to this support, guidance and technical expertise," she said.

In most cases, Mascord explained, the outcome will be that the publication will agree to pay or will remove the content they have used. But what if, in a worst case scenario, they are not being forthcoming about a solution?

"You could be clever and try to negotiate extra work from them which actually might be paid," he suggested.

As a last resort though, Mascord said that a legal route is open as well. If a journalist chose to take it that far, he warned that it would cost money with legal fees.

"You’ve got to assert your right, otherwise there will be lots of us doing free work for commercial organisations. Even though plenty of media organisations are hard pressed financially these days, obviously they do have to pay some money for the content they produce."

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