Work done on company time may not be your own

Feb 2nd, 2011 | By | Category: Newsroom Politics
Watch laid down on pile of paper U.S. money with old-fashioned key to the right

JOE GRIMM
Michigan State University
School of Journalism

Q. Who owns a reporter’s notes and a photographer’s unpublished photographs? Does their employer, or do they?

Can a reporter write a story for another publication or a book based on notes she took while on assignment for an employer or former employer? Or do those notes belong to the newspaper she wrote for?

Say a photographer goes to an assignment, shoots 50 photos and only submits 10 of them to the newspaper for publication. Does the newspaper also own the other 40 images that he shot? Or can a photographer turn around and sell those images on a freelance basis, or provide them to another publication if he changes employers?

Part of me thinks that the reporter and photographer own the notes and unpublished images — after all, they’re creative professionals chosen for their judgment and skill, meaning the items wouldn’t have been created in that form if not for their innate talents and abilities. But at the same time, part of me thinks that they should belong to the employer, because it was the employer that sent them to this particular assignment in the first place. So I’m torn, and my research has struck out. Any words of wisdom?

A. Most employers will feel that work you produce on company time belongs to the company, and the courts will back them up, should it come to that.

Consider:

In addition to paying for the time you spent to get the content, the employer might also have paid for your mileage, equipment and supplies.

You got the assignment as a representative of the company, not on your own.

As your employer, how can I be sure I am getting your full attention and your best work if you are busy trying to satisfy a client, while I am keeping you employed full-time, more or less without regard to how you do on an individual assignment?

The split between being a creative professional and being an employee makes the difference. If you enjoy the privileges of being an employ — and those include insurance and other benefits — you relinquish the rights to what you do as an employee. If you are and independent creative, you are selling only your work product and can draw a line around that.

If you find a good home for some of the work you shot while working as an employee, ask for permission. An employer would rightly feel exploited and betrayed if you wound up selling some of the work you had already been paid to do to some outside publication.

Also avoid selling your work to competitors of your publication, which may have a policy barring that.

Books may be a different matter and employers have been known to give journalists permission to write books — on their own time — growing out of their beats or stories they covered.

I encourage you to freelance, but not while you are on the clock and not with company equipment. Consider this: The best option may be to use your publication, which probably has some reach, as a platform for showing your work. Before you start looking for new homes, max out the usefulness of the one you already have.

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