We've all seen movies or read books about struggling new journalists working day and night for practically nothing, looking for the big break: A hot news story guaranteeing Woodward and Bernstein notoriety. Some bloggers may get that break without much of a wait, but for others it may not happen so easily.

No Pay Check?

Blogs and bloggers are everywhere these days. Individuals use them to voice their opinions on anything and everything, from pizza to current political events - or just to vent some steam. Companies use them to advertise products. News outlets use them to increase the range of news and items of interest that may not "fit" into the mainstream publication.

Blogs can be big money-makers. Just ask The Huffington Post. The powerhouse site turned a profit for the first time in 2010. Why? Because much of the work is done by bloggers - for free.

Yes, The Huffington Post doesn't pay many of its bloggers. Instead, they work in exchange to have their opinions and articles published for the world to see on web site accessed by thousands of people each day. They get paid not in dollars, but in exposure.

Forbes.com, the online version of the notable business publication, is following suit, but with a twist. Forbes keeps practically all copyright and other rights in the free blogs. For instance, it can sell the blogs, use them in any Forbes-owned publication, and let other publications use them - online or in print without paying the bloggers a dime.

Is That Legal?

It's a lopsided deal, but it's legal. It may or may not be the right deal for you, but it's legal as long as you know the details of the agreement before you contribute. Generally, your blogs are your creation and they're your property. Forbes, and anyone else for that matter, can't claim ownership of them - or even use them, under copyright law - without your permission.

Of course, under the works made for hire rules in copyright law, most employee-created works, made as part of or in the usual course of their jobs, belong to their employers. Forbes' free bloggers probably aren't considered employees, but rather independent contractors, so the works made for hire rules probably don't apply.

But, if you, like many other bloggers, want to give a company or another person ownership of your work, you're free to do so.

What You Can Do

If offers like The Huffington Post's and Forbes' sound attractive to you, know exactly what you're getting into. You'll almost certainly be asked to sign a contract or deal. Look for explanations about:

  • Who owns your work, and for how long. Forever? Until you stop working for the company?
  • Who owns derivative rights - sequels, spin-offs or other ideas your content leads to?
  • Whether you can publish the same work on your own personal blog
  • Whether the company can sell your work to other organizations, companies or whomever it pleases; can it give it away or should royalties be paid?
  • Whether the company can use or display your work online only, or if it can be printed and distributed
  • Who's liable if you, as the author, get sued for defamation or if the information is incorrect?
  • Whether you can work as a blogger - for free or not - somewhere else

Keep in mind that companies aren't usually as charitable as we'd like them to be and could make a lot of money from your free work. Knowing the answers to the above questions can help you gauge if working for space or exposure is really your best option.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Does the space I get for free as a blogger have any money or income value for federal income tax purposes?
  • Do I have to let a publisher know I'm quitting even if I'm working for free?
  • Is there anything I can do if a publisher changes my blog making it look like I wrote something I never actually wrote?

Tagged as: Intellectual Property, Copyrights, bloggers, copyrights lawyer