US Freelancers, The Wall Street Journal

by Pui-Wing Tam: Even as Hollywood screenwriters and studios have averted a crippling strike, another group of creative professionals -- freelance photographers -- has been quietly mounting work stoppages against several national magazines. At issue is how much money glossy magazines are willing to pay to republish freelancers' photos in international and online editions. Just last week, about a dozen freelance photographers notified colleagues they would stop taking new photo assignments from Forbes magazine, at least for now. "It's a David and Goliath situation," says Michael Grecco, a Los Angeles freelance photographer and one of those declining new work from Forbes. "We have to take every small step we can." Ray Healey, a Forbes Inc. spokesman, says the magazine is "re-examining and redrafting" its contract for freelance photographers and declined to elaborate. The standoff with Forbes is the latest in a string of informal protests that freelance photographers have been making over compensation and republication rights. To protest cuts in royalty rates, some have stopped dealing with the two biggest stock-photo houses, Getty Images Inc., of Seattle, and Corbis Corp., which is owned by Microsoft Chairman William Gates. In January, freelancers aimed a letter-writing campaign at Conde Nast, the publisher of magazines such as the New Yorker, Vogue and Vanity Fair, urging it to renegotiate its photographer agreement to clarify copyright issues and improve day rates. Since March, more than a dozen freelancers have been refusing to shoot photos for Newsweek after it restructured day rates for photographers. In an era when few magazines keep full-time photographers on their payrolls, the freelancers' hardball tactics -- the photographers call them "peer pressure" -- are, in some cases, working. Last year, after facing a photographer boycott, BusinessWeek overhauled its pay scale, doubling the day rate to $850, in exchange for copyright privileges internationally and on the Web. The contract also provides for annual increases over a four-year period. "The boycott had an effect," says Larry Lippmann, BusinessWeek's photo editor, adding that he is proud of the contract. "Day rates stagnated for freelance photographers for too long a period, and there are clearly certain inequities." The issue is galvanizing freelance photographers, who as independent contractors are forbidden by federal labor law to unionize or act collectively against employers. Several photographers late last year organized an alliance with some graphic artists, the Coalition of Visual Artists, based in Washington D.C., to educate themselves about labor rights and the possibility of organizing a union. "This is a make-or-break time in our industry," says Richard Morgenstein, a San Francisco freelancer who is boycotting Forbes and others. "All of us understand we have power in numbers, but, individually and divided, we'll all end up as content serfs." Newspapers, too, have had to deal with similar complaints. Last year, a group of freelance photographers joined freelance writers and illustrators to file a complaint in Massachusetts Superior Court in Boston against the Boston Globe, a unit of New York Times Co., over terms of its new contract covering republication rights. The plaintiffs say the Globe is illegally "coercive" under state fair-business practices laws because it is demanding unlimited rights to republish their work without extra compensation. Rick Gulla, a Globe spokesman, says the contract is designed so that the online publications are consistent with the print version, and a majority of freelancers have signed it. The Globe has filed a motion to stay the case, and a hearing is set for June 1. Last year, Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, rewrote its standard agreement with freelance photographers, giving managers the ability to set higher rates in exchange for broader republication rights in its print and online publications. Photographers say they have long been exploited by magazines, which enjoyed generous advertising profits through the 1990s yet remained stingy when paying for photographs. For example, until early last year, McGraw-Hill Co.'s BusinessWeek magazine was paying freelance photographers $425 a day, an increase of just 30% over its 1989 rate of $325 a day. During the same period, BusinessWeek's ad revenues more than doubled, according to data from Publishers Information Bureau. The photographers' movement sprouted in 1999 when a group of freelancers in San Francisco, who call themselves the SF9, noticed that BusinessWeek was running their photos in both its domestic and foreign editions while paying just one fee. The photographers agitated for a new contract and some boycotted the magazine. After the San Francisco group's success with BusinessWeek, other photographers began buzzing on the Web. An online community called Editorial Photographers numbers about 3,000 members, and the group's board members say they have been discussing contract revisions with publishers including Forbes and Time Inc. "We can't come out and call for an industry boycott," says Bob Houser, a San Francisco photographer and one of the founders of Editorial Photographers. "But if individual photographers make decisions about stopping work, we can make those decisions loud and clear." Magazine publishers say recent declines in ad revenue make this a difficult time to raise photographers' pay. Some say rates for freelancers have already risen enough. Ken Weine, a spokesman for Newsweek, published by Washington Post Co., says its restructured rate -- $500 a day -- is fair compensation for rights to publish photographs in the domestic magazine and also in overseas editions and on the Internet. Peter Costiglio, a spokesman for Time Inc., a unit of AOL Time Warner Inc., says it is "looking at a number of issues relating to photographers" but isn't negotiating new agreements now. Maurie Perl, a spokeswoman for Conde Nast, a unit of Advance Publications Inc., says the company is "having conversations" with photographers. "These things take time," she says. Photographers, meanwhile, say their livelihoods are at stake as equipment, processing and labor expenses have soared. Freelancers now incur average costs of $250 to $300 a day to satisfy quality requirements, according to Editorial Photographers, the trade group. "We want to be viewed as business partners to the publishers," says Seth Resnick, president of Editorial Photographers and a Boston freelancer. "The photographers have become incredibly frustrated. But if we do say no as individuals, we can effect change."