A cautionary tale for freelancers


Now here’s an odd one – I wonder what you make of this?

Towards the end of April I was contacted out of the blue by X. He said that he knew me from the Journalism.co.uk forum, and enquired about my availability to do some writing work.

As it happens I don’t frequent that forum. I did have a freelance listing on the site, but I didn’t renew it because it proved to be ineffectual. But perhaps this untrue detail should have been a red flag to me, in the light of what followed.

Over the following weeks I had a couple of emails from X (copied in to 3 other people), saying that the potential project was delayed but still in progress.

I didn’t think too much about it – every freelancer gets approached about potential work that can sound terribly exciting at first but doesn’t turn out to add up to a whole hill of beans. You soon learn not to get too excited until a definite contract or commission definitely appears.

Last week I was contacted by Y.

Y is very angry with X.

Y sent me a bunch of correspondence, including a lawyer’s letter, to this effect. There’s some kind of dispute going on about money owed, and work done, or not done.

So I asked Y: Why are you contacting me about this? I’m just a freelancer that X sounded out about possible work.

To which Y replied: “I thought you were working for that company and were perhaps a shareholder”

And when I looked at the attachment to Y’s reply I could see why – for there in the pages of a marketing brochure were my photo and professional details. Neither of which I had directly supplied. The brochure starts: “We are a group of five journalists”, which sort of implies, as they say in High School Musical, we’re all in this together.

What I really didn’t like was that part of the blurb boasted that “one of us writes the UK’s only mother and daughter blog” – whilst it’s true that I do that, and am very proud to do so, it’s a non-commercial venture. I feel very uncomfortable that my 12 year old daughter’s creative efforts are now part of some company’s marketing blurb.

And as a pedantic writer I don’t like being represented by a text that sees the need to capitalise ‘Web sites’ and ‘Social Networking’ – who does that?

There are repeated references to “we” and “our people”, and some of the ‘facts’ about me make no sense at all.

Whilst it’s not uncommon for freelancers to band together in order to win a bigger contract than they might do individually, for the love of God, surely you ask people’s permission before you do a thing like that?

So I told Y, and then I emailed X pointing out that I hadn’t given him my permission to do this, and that in any case I was no longer available to work with him. This is true, but even if I had nothing to fill my days, I don’t think I’d ever be comfortable working for someone who thought that this was an OK way to behave.

When I emailed X, I cc’d in the 3 other people involved, who were also featured in the brochure. As it transpired, one of them is X’s partner, but the other two, like me, are independent freelancers who had not supplied the information, didn’t know that it had been used in this way and aren’t happy about it.

So, what’s a freelancer to do? I’ve been researching the legal situation but it seems unclear. Our names are our brands, and we need to get them out there in order to continue to attract work. But what can you do if someone uses your name, your brand, without your permission?

Well, if you’ve trademarked your name (which, unless you’re a celebrity, you probably haven’t) then you have a lot more rights if it looks like someone has breached your trademark, and you can sue. Luckily I have an expert in international law in the family so will get him to look at this.

X has said that my details were only in that one brochure, but then also says that my name will be removed “from all of our materials”, which implies that there is more to it than that.

I guess it brings home to me the freelancers’ curse – we must continually put ourselves out there in order to continue to attract work. It’s something I often talk about with coaching clients – freelance journalism is a business, and all businesses must market themselves on an ongoing basis. But in putting ourselves out there we make ourselves vulnerable that our names and experience will be harnessed to something we did not intend.

And what to do differently next time? I think I need to research prospective clients a bit more, and set my red flag alert higher. I did google X, and found a somewhat home-made looking website, but that’s hardly the crime of the century. Deep down I think I always knew that this wasn’t an opportunity that would amount to much, but again that’s not unusual. What is unusual is the element of having your details used without your knowledge or permission. That leaves a bad taste in my mouth. At least now I know who not to work with.

If you were me, what (if anything) would you do now?


image credit: Flickr user, twicepix

  • @Whealie – I did think about putting up an image from the brochure. Might still do that. I haven’t named names because I don’t want to get into a public slanging match with an individual. I am angry about it, but I’m not one to wallow in anger. I’d rather try and move on if I can, but not without looking at what might be learnt from this situation.

    @Ellen – Possibly! I don’t think the text itself was libellous (though some of it was innacurate), the problem is more that it presents me, without my knowledge, as being part of a group which I am not part of.

  • @Liz – thank you for commenting. In a lot of ways this has been a wake up call for me. I often think of myself as your typical freelancer, bumbling along from job to job. But actually, if you string all my experience together then it does start to sound more impressive than I realised. I have never really stopped to think about how much commercial value there might be in this. I do think that it’s very likely that my details were taken from the journalism.co.uk listing – there’s no mention of my book, for starters.

  • I wouldn’t be using X and Y and a generic Flickr pic – I’d be naming names and putting up images of the brochures to back up your allegations.

    Sounds like deliberate fraud. I’d be angry.

  • Wasn’t it libel if what X said about you lowered your reputation?

  • Liz

    Joanne this is absolutely disgraceful behaviour (theirs I mean, not yours!) I think, honestly, that you should name and shame – or at the least tell everyone on the forum so they can be on their guard. They were using your name and your credentials to bid for work, without your permission to do so. Flaming outrageous.

  • Gail

    Have you googled your name together with theirs to see if they’ve posted details of this mythical “service” anywhere else, and checked the analytics on your website to see if they crop up in your keywords or if there’s unusual referral traffic?

  • Hi Sue – Celebrities trademark their names so they can’t be used for commercial purposes – so you couldn’t sell a Lady Gaga perfume, but she could.

    You cannot copyright an idea, but you do hold the copyright on any original works you produce from that idea (unless you assign them elsewhere). If you’re seriously worried about your content being copied then I think it would be a good idea to contact a legal expert to ascertain exactly what your rights are, particularly internationally.

  • @Gail – that is a really good idea, I’ve just done that and no,m it doesn’t look like the info in the brochure has made it online. Will have a look at Google Analytics too, but for now I have some real work to do so must aim to forget about this for a while.

  • Joanne, this is scary. What a horrible experience!

    Although I’m not a journalist, I’m an executive life coach with a special twist that is unique to me. I don’t imagine this experience is limited to that one X person but could, potentially, cut across other professions. I didn’t know you can trademark your name; I could trademark the name of my model but that’s very expensive. Besides, it’s the content that is different too.

    Any ideas of how to protect oneself?

  • Sarah

    I agree with many of the comments above, particularly that it was deliberate on their part, and would be utterly furious. I would name X and let us see the site/brochure so we can add our comments perhaps emphasising that we know you are nothing to do with it. Poor you. Stressful and really rather horrid.

  • @Sarah – thank you for your support

    @Carole – the other two are both based outside the UK, so I suspect not

  • Are you, or the two other journalist/bloggers members of the NUJ? They have a legal section and by reporting the “marketing” misrepresentation you can also prevent further distress.