Patrick Soon-Shiong, the owner of the Los Angeles Times, in New York in January 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Media critic

The Los Angeles Times Guild is raising concerns about a proposal from the newspaper’s management to assert “unfettered control” over the outside projects — books and TV shows, for example — of its journalists, according to an open letter released on Wednesday. The proposal, according to the guild, has come in the late stages of negotiations over a union contract. “The company has proposed a draconian policy on books and other creative projects that, as a condition of employment, would go far beyond the work-for-hire standards of U.S. copyright law and the relicensing practices historically allowed by The Times,” reads the letter.

“If we have a book idea related to our work, even if fictional, the company wants unfettered power to claim control over whether it gets written, who owns the copyright and what we might get paid for it,” it continues. “The company also wants to claim the film rights to such books even if the company grants permission for the book to be written, on unpaid leave, for an outside publisher.”

The company’s proposal comes amid negotiations over the first newsroom collective-bargaining agreement in the history of the Los Angeles Times. Journalists at the newspaper formed the union in January 2018 and have been negotiating with management for about seven months, according to Matt Pearce, a vice chair of the Los Angeles Times Guild and a national reporter for the paper. The Los Angeles Times is undergoing a reinvestment phase under the ownership of biotech titan Patrick Soon-Shiong, who rescued the paper from something once known as Tronc.

As the guild makes clear in an FAQ, there’s no dispute over the results of journalists’ work-for-hire. That is, if a columnist wanted to package a few years’ worth of hot takes in bound form, the Los Angeles Times would rightly own that material; any attempt to publish it in book form would require a licensing agreement.

However, the union is arguing that the company is seeking control over material that hasn’t already been published under the banner of the Los Angeles Times. “We believe the company is asking us to sign over rights to intellectual property that the company does not properly own as work for hire under copyright law,” notes the FAQ. “The company’s proposal says that “if for any reason the works [that we produce in the ‘scope of our employment’] are not deemed a work for hire, the employee must assign all such rights to the Times without further compensation to the employee.”

Says the union’s FAQ: “In other words: If there’s some ambiguity over whether The Times owns something we produce that’s somehow related to our journalism, then we have to fork over ownership of it to The Times if The Times wants to assert control, and it isn’t obligated to pay us anything if it develops the project on its own.”

Asks Pearce: “Why is the company asking us to sign over rights to work they don’t own?”

The company’s proposal allows management to decide whether and how much bonus money an enterprising journalist may receive. “LAT will decide in its sole discretion whether to award bonuses or other compensation to involved employees in a derivatives development project within the scope of these guidelines,” reads the proposal. “Any special bonuses, if warranted as determined solely by LAT, may be (but are not required to be) calculated as a percentage of net revenue (net revenue shall mean all revenue generated by the project, less any applicable expenses) earned by LAT, and paid to the Contributing Employee, following the receipt of funds by LAT."

Now there’s a savvy use of incentives.

Los Angeles Times Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine sent an email to staff responding to worries about alleged intellectual-property overreach:

Our view is straightforward and consistent with our past practice and with the position taken by most media companies whose business models are similar to ours. 

The Los Angeles Times pays for the content produced for us as work for hire.  As such, the company owns it.  The company must have the ability to extend beyond its traditional publishing model in order to help offset losses from legacy businesses that have been, and continue to be, in a state of secular decline. 

There is nothing new here. Our rights are limited to derivative works. We don’t own an employee’s name or likeness. We only seek to protect our rights to products derived from work that belongs to us. 

As has been true in the past, there will be instances where, at our discretion, we may want to share proceeds from projects based on our proprietary content — not only with those whose bylines accompany the work, but also with others who contributed to it.

There’s a bit of a clash in messaging. On the one hand are Pearlstine’s assurances that the company’s proposals align with industry practices. On the other hand, Pearce tells us that the company’s negotiators in previous stages of the discussions “had been making noises about a hard line on [intellectual property]." The union argues that the proposal of the Los Angeles Times is out of step with the rules that prevail at comparable outlets.

In response to an inquiry from the Erik Wemple Blog, New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha pointed to rules requiring newspaper staffers to inform their bosses of proposed projects, the better to give the New York Times a chance to compete for the project. “Within a reasonable period, taking into account the time frame for the project, The Times will inform the staff member in writing whether it wants to compete for the project,” notes the policy. “If it does, The Times will provide the staff member with a competitive bid. In the end, the staff member and his or her agent have no obligation to accept The Times’s offer."

Journalists at the New York Times whose work is sought for republication get a sweet deal. “In general,” notes the New York Times policy, an agreement hashed out with the paper’s union “calls for a 50/50 split of the fees involved.” A very recent contract between online magazine Slate and the Writers Guild of America East bakes in a revenue-sharing arrangement for so-called derivative works.

Kris Coratti, a spokeswoman for The Post, tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “There is not a formal policy, but reporters generally keep the rights to books they write that go beyond their work at The Post.”

The larger context for all of this is geographical. The Los Angeles Times covers a region that packs great potential for big-dollar creative works. “Michael Connelly, the bestselling author, created the character of LAPD Detective Hieronymus Bosch while working as a crime reporter for The Times,” notes the union letter. “Columnist Steve Lopez developed ‘The Soloist,’ a close-up account of homelessness in Los Angeles, based on his work as a metro columnist; his book later became a movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx. Former reporter Sonia Nazario based her critically acclaimed book ‘Enrique’s Journey’ on the Pulitzer Prize-winning series on Central American immigration she wrote for The Times.”

The irony of this fight? Soon-Shiong is a surgeon and an entrepreneur whose businesses rely on patents, another critical form of intellectual property protection.