So why not take all of me ...

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For a freelance journalist, sorting the morning post can be enervating. "Acme Widgets appoints Marketing ..." : bin. Tax demand: file. "You assign to us exclusively throughout the universe the entire present and future copyright and all other rights, title and interest of any nature (including rental and lending rights) ...": pardon?

That sentence appeared in letters sent to freelances working for EMAP Metro, publisher of style and music papers from Q to Empire. Many were outraged.

What would you do? As a freelance, you don't necessarily meet many other journalists. Even if you're in the union, some things won't wait until the next meeting. So some EMAP contributors scrabbled through their address books to contact others. They met, and over 100 signed a letter rejecting the proposed "standard commissioning terms and conditions". They are now in informal talks with the company.

EMAP is not alone: it is just that its proposed terms are clearer than those of other publishers. Others seeking to extend their rights over freelances' work include the specialist computer publisher, VNU, the Times and Times supplements, the Telegraph, and Reed Business Publications.

What many VNU contributors did was to discuss their letter on electronic bulletin boards: they decided not to sign. Eminent Telegraph contributors jammed the phone of the editorial director Jeremy Deedes. Within four days he had withdrawn the letter. RBP contributors recently met at NUJ headquarters to discuss a response.

And 14 organisations representing creators of copyright work (from the entertainment union BECTU to the Society of Authors) formed the Creators' Copyright Coalition (CCC). The publishers may be kicking themselves for creating this unity, given that the NUJ and the Institute of Journalists have not officially cooperated for 25 years. Not much more predictably, when the CCC took its case to Parliament in May it gained trenchant support from author-MP Edwina Currie.

All the major publishers involved plan to produce CD-Roms - another edition of the freelances' work - without extra payment. Traditionally, freelances have sold publishers "first British serial rights", a licence to use their work in one edition of a paper or magazine. The work still belongs to the freelance, who can sell licences for further editions to other papers.

Many publishers - including the Independent's - have for years been republishing articles through computer databases such as FT Profile, and are now collecting fees for photocopying, without it being clear that they own the relevant rights.

The crunch, however, is publishing on the Internet and its successors. By the end of the year, systems are expected to be in place for readers to pay for each article or photo they see. (The reader presses a virtual button, sees this article, and pays 2p to the Independent.)

Telegraph contributor Claire Rayner sums up the reaction of most freelances: "I want to have a tiny little share of that - nothing excessive, just my share." Freelances who follow the politics of cyberspace argue that if the actual creators of the "information" (from articles and photographs to movies) on the information superhighway have a stake, we have at least the economic possibility of diversity and creativity. Outright ownership of information by corporations encourages the opposite.

EMAP also asks you to "waive unconditionally, irrevocably and permanently the benefit of moral rights in the Work, including similar or equivalent rights in any part of the world..."

"Moral rights" are a hotbed of vagueness. UK law gives self-employed creators the right to credit for their work, and the right to object to so-called "derogatory treatment". It promptly takes these rights away again for "publication in a newspaper, magazine or periodical". It gives employed writers and photographers no rights in their work.

Some argue that the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988 does not meet the UK's obligations under the Berne Convention, the international treaty governing copyright and authors' rights. Mainstream European law, on which Berne is based, does not deal in "copyright" as a commodity, but in "authors' rights". As barrister Alistair Kelman puts it, "authors' rights are part of your soul". You simply cannot sell them outright.

Some freelances plan to test UK law in the European Court of Human Rights. The publishers' lawyers appear to be concerned that European harmonisation will overtake us. Publication on the Internet may not qualify for the exclusions granted in the1988 Act. For example, draft changes to the Act, due for implementation on 1 July, give publishers "lending and rental rights", and demand that they pay a proportion to freelances, if they have not signed them away by then. But the CCC and others have strongly demanded that creators gain the new rights for themselves. In the words of the Department of Trade and Industry "the consultation was, how shall we say this, a very full one, and it's taken longer then expected to consider ... it probably won't be considered until after the recess."

Things get worse. From the EMAP document: "You warrant that ... your work will not be obscene, defamatory... You agree that we will own the original materials which embody the commissioned work ... and that you will at our request supply us with those materials."

In English: the publisher wants your notes, tapes and clippings so it can change your work. Then, if it receives a libel writ, it can sue you. If, on the other hand, it decides to cave in to a writ demanding, say, that you reveal your sources, it can sue you to hand over your original notes and stop you taking a stand for good journalistic ethics.

Would you sign such a document? Or would you at least ask the publishers to sit down and talk about an equitable way of dealing with the challenge of the new media to our mutual benefit?