Friday, January 26, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Privila: Privilege or Punishment?

Recently I received a question about a company called Privila, which has been advertising for journalism interns on Craigslist and other freelance job sites.

The small print on the index page of Privila's website reveals that it's a subsidiary of a company called Domain Holdings Inc., which specializes in "monetizing" URLs with popular names (for instance, Christmasandnannukkahgifts.com), turning them into directories that list retailers and items for sale. The verbiage on Privila's About Us page is pretty opaque, but by inference, it will provide content for websites managed by Domain Holdings.

So far, so good. According to Privila, the benefits of internship include:

# Gain REAL writing EXPERIENCE; Resume builder
# Be a PUBLISHED author across a variety of topics and websites
# Work with seasoned EDITORS to IMPROVE your writing
# CHALLENGE and EDUCATE yourself by meeting deadlines and researching a multitude of topics including: jewelry, sports, fashion, outdoors, automobiles, finances, arts and much more!
# ESTABLISH a sense of what it would be like to FREELANCE for a publication.
# LEARN about INTERNET JOURNALISM, the future of the writing field!!!


The perks of internship look pretty cool too--in fact, with a coffee shop atmosphere, nerf gear "to exercise a minor case of writers block or coding confusion," a fully stocked fridge, and made-to-order lunches, it sounds less like a job than a vacation (the faux-hip description of all this falls a little flat, but never mind). To apply, all you have to do is fill out this simple form.

So what's the catch? (Because you knew there'd be one, didn't you?) Well, the catch is lurking, as it often does, in the fine print--in this case, the Terms and Conditions to which you must agree if you become an intern.

From Section One, "Trade Secrets:"

At all times during and after the term of the internship, PARTICIPANT is prohibited from and shall refrain from disclosing to other persons or entities any confidential information or trade secrets of PRIVILA (including those developed by PARTICIPANT) or of which PARTICIPANT becomes aware.

No disclosure of trade secrets. Check. Now this, from Section Two, "Assignment of Rights to Articles/Projects:"

During the term of the internship, PARTICIPANT agrees that any articles/ projects authored, created, or otherwise worked on by PARTICIPANT during the internship and/or involving direct or indirect use of PRIVILA's facilities, equipment, supplies, trade secrets, or that relate to PRIVILA's current or anticipated work or research, or that result from work done for PRIVILA, shall belong to PRIVILA. PARTICIPANT waives any proprietary right to said work, and assigns such articles/ projects to PRIVILA...PARTICIPANT further agrees that PRIVILA designates such articles/ projects as trade secrets.

Uh oh. According to this clause, interns must relinquish ownership--presumably, this means copyright--of the writing they do during their internship. Now, I understand that websites often use writers on a work-for-hire basis--but surely this should relate only to the work produced for that website. The language above suggests that Privila is claiming ownership of ANY writing its interns do, whether or not that writing relates to Privila.

Moreover, such writing is designated a trade secret, and interns are prohibited from disclosing trade secrets to others (remember Section One?). Would "others" include potential employers? So much for Benefits 1 and 2. It will be difficult to claim "real" writing experience or "published author" status if you can't back up your claim and demonstrate your writing ability by providing clips of your articles.

On to Section Three, "Disclosure of Articles/Projects to PRIVILA:"

To facilitate compliance with this agreement, PARTICIPANT agrees to disclose to PRIVILA all articles/ projects made by PARTICIPANT during the course of the internship. PARTICIPANT agrees that any copyright application filed within one year after the end or termination of PARTICIPANT's is presumed to relate to an article/ project developed during the term of PARTICIPANT's internship with PRIVILA...An article/ project is made by PARTICIPANT during the course of the internship if PARTICIPANT conceived of, or put into practice, the article/ project during the term of PARTICIPANT's internship.

So...having claimed ownership of ANY work produced or "conceived of" by interns during their internships, Privila also claims ownership of work produced afterward, by means of the astounding "presumption" that anything the intern produces in the year following her internship will "relate" to her internship.

Of course, since this provision is triggered by copyright registration, you could simply avoid registering any copyrights for a year (a policy you should be following anyway for unpublished work). But suppose you sell an article to a magazine, and the magazine registers a collective copyright. Would that trigger Privila's ownership claim? Suppose you want to register copyright to that published article yourself, as professional writers' organizations suggest you do (since a publisher's collective copyright may not give you standing to sue for infringement of your individual work). You can register even after infringement and still take the infringer to court--but you can only sue for the full range of damages if registration predates the infringement or is made within three months of publication. Might the possibility of an ownership claim by Privila prevent you from doing that?

So...no money, no clips, and the possibility that your work may be hijacked for up to a year after your internship is over. For this, you must commit to a minimum of 10 hours per week for 15 weeks, research and write a minimum of 5 articles per week, and meet daily deadlines. All in all, a journalism internship for Privila looks to me a lot like indentured servitude.

22 comments:

Dave Kuzminski said...

Been there, done that, so to speak, with other companies. Most will voluntarily modify the contract to exclude fiction and articles that do not relate to the areas in which you write for them. If they won't, then you have a red flag that should concern you, but ask them about it first.

WWWWolf said...

Journalism internship.

...with an NDA.

Whenever I think the comedians have once again come up with the most outrageously hilarious contradictions in terms, the Real Life shows that there's worse in store.

A little bit of common sense might be in order: If the job involves writing stuff people will read, and your contract says you can't let anyone to read your writings, well, either the job may be a little bit challenging or there's something really really complex and potentially sinister going on behind the scenes.

A minor point, though: the rights-transfer bit clearly limits the transfer to work "involving direct or indirect use of PRIVILA's facilities, equipment," etc... so it doesn't appear to actually cover anything they do out of work. (It's past midnight here so I could be wrong.) Just don't ever use the Company Pen and the Company Paper Pad if you get a good idea for your own projects and have to write it down, or their lawyer will eat you alive...

Mags said...

I trust this is an unpaid internship?

Anonymous said...

I think you're a little misguided to be picking on Privila here. I don't know about web publishing, but I've had several in-house jobs at magazines, and have always had similar clauses in my contract. In the case of magazine publishers, they do it so that if you come up with an idea for a new magazine, then leave the company, you can't then claim that you own the idea and try to make them close the new magazine. I presume the reasoning is similar here. I'm not saying it's fair, but it's not at all unusual and, like Dave said above, if you're a fiction writer in your spare time it's usually no problem to get the contract amended so that you retain the copyright for your fiction.

Heather said...

This sounds like some pretty standard NDA stuff, and while I agree that the language is suspect (it does seem to be a bit broad spectrum in its language) have a lawyer take a look will probably reveal standard legalese. It goes without saying that any company has the right to any work you produce while working for them... on their projects. I don't think any court in the world would hold up an argument that independent projects that clearly have no relationship to the original company could be claimed.

With that said, if I were to take that position, I would definitely insist on modifying that language to be more clear.

Brian said...

These type of wording in contracts is common in the entertainment industry. A friend of mine was applying for a job at Disney and he would have to agree that anything he created, even at home, would count as theres.

Victoria Strauss said...

I do understand that this kind of language is out there (though I still feel that Privila's version is too sweeping). What concerns me is that it seems like overkill for an unpaid internship--as opposed to a paid company employee--and I'm also concerned that students looking for college credit will see this as a good opportunity and skim over the fine print, as people often do.

Gregory Ludwig said...

About 11 years ago I had published (in a writers' association magazine) two articles related to copyright, and one had to do with my copyrighting an article that was originally written as a work for hire for a magazine company, and then abruptly wasn't to be used. The second article had to do with copyright implications of online reproduction of works originally published in print, which was inspired in good part by positions the Authors Registry had. Of course, the issues regarding online reproduction in about 1995 were pretty rudimentary compared to today. In view of what I remember of these articles, and of issues that are similar today, two things: (1) some of the legalese as Victoria cites here seems on the manic side--it seems ridiculous for a company to claim ownership of anything an intern may write even if not within the purview of work, and a year after leaving the company. That sounds like either corporate bullying, to keep the naive, eager interns in line, or a sort of scare tactic dreamed up by a bit of a nut. (2) Regarding clips, the issue is about what it was in 1995. At that time, I tended to be overly fastidious, to the point of paranoia, about not photocopying something lest I incur the wrath of the copyright owners. But in reality, as someone at a freelancers association or the like said in response to one of my articles, it seems ridiculous not to be able to make copies for clip purposes. And I came to agree with this fully. So--place article on photocopier, make a few copies for clips, and think to yourself, "Try and catch me!!!" I.e., ownership means copyright for *publishing* purposes, but not prohibition of making a few clips for work-getting purposes.

Brooks Moses said...

wwwwolf: Read it a bit closer. It says, "authored, created, or otherwise worked on by PARTICIPANT during the internship and/or involving direct or indirect use of PRIVILA's facilities...."

The fact that the second and subsequent clauses of that are fairly reasonable is pretty irrelevant, given that that first clause is joined to them with an "or".

Anonymous said...

I have just started this internship with Privila. I am still and little confused with the comments that you have made. Are you saying that I can not even use the company internship on my resume, or use any of my work as clips to show potential employers? Is it even worth it for me to continue on with the internship? And if I am freelancing on the side, does that mean they own the rights to that work?

Victoria Strauss said...

Hi, Anonymous. I'm sure you could use the company's name on your resume, but the language of the Terms and Conditions suggests to me that you might have trouble with clips, since Privila seems to designate articles as trade secrets. Also, as brooks moses pointed out, the inclusion of "or" in the clause describing Privila's ownership of work done by its interns suggests the possibility that it is claiming ownership of things you write out of work as well as things you write for Privila.

If I were you, I'd approach your contact at Privila about this, and request that they confirm in writing that you can use your articles as clips to show potential future employers, and that Privila's ownership of your work will apply ONLY to the articles you write for them (not to work you do for others or on your own). Don't rely on verbal assurances: get a written commitment. And please report back to let us know what happens.

Anonymous said...

Their "about us" sounds like a content factory intent on flooding sites with tons of craptastic pages full of keywords to me.

Work for hire is not a problem. The NDA is not a problem. Not revealing "trade secrets" is not a problem.

It's the rights grab for everything during the internship and produced for a year afterwards that IS a problem.

And this that relate to PRIVILA's current or anticipated work or research ... how do you have any way of anticipating what they are anticipating?

It's way too broad a non-compete clause, and would never hold up in court, but anyone who signs this thing is asking for trouble.

Anonymous said...

Privila has just posted again on Craigslist in Chicago and other parts of the country. Please flag it down so that no one else gets screwed by their terms.

DJ Burnett said...

I filled out Privila's initial application, and encountered that paragraph in their terms a couple days ago. It raised my hackles a bit, so I searched Google and found this page.

I received an email inviting me to send a sample article for Phase 2 of the application process. I replied, quoting the suspect paragraph and asking for clarification. I stated that I assumed that statement only applied to articles written for Privia, with Privia equipment, or relating to projects worked on for Privia.

I got a reply the next day from a Privia Human Resources representative, asking when would be a good time to call me so she could answer my questions. I replied that I would prefer to have the clarification in writing.

Today I got another email from her. She said, and I quote:

"Your train of though in your email dated 2/20/07 is along the right path. Your interpretation of the Privila terms appears correct. In addition, I do not foresee any conflicts between your outside endeavors and the internship.

The articles you would create for Privila during the internship, you are welcome to display as clips for your portfolio but may not publish them again especially online (i.e. on your personal website)."

Therefore, it appears that using clips is fine as long as you don't try to re-sell or re-publish them. That is completely reasonable and normal for an internship, I believe.

It also appears that the terms apply only to Privila-related work and excludes any outside pursuits you may engage in.

It is also noteworthy that this page is the only negative information I've turned up about Privila. Try searching for PublishAmerica, for instance. You'll find tons of pages full of angry people who feel they've been cheated. I found nothing like that out there on Privila.

Its possible I'm overlooking something here, but it seems to me that this company is on the up and up.

Isis McGowan said...

And here I thought that's how the mainstream industry worked: Indentered servitude...

>shrugs innocently<

Anonymous said...

Hi! I hope this topic isn't too old. I just wanted to give my opinion. I've been doing the Privila internship since January. My internship ends in about a month.

When I first started, I was a bit sceptical. I'm not anymore though. Privila is a very helpful and open company. Yeah, the articles are keyword related, but what they want from me is a lot better than any other company I've written keyword articles for.

As for clips, they encourage it. I link to all my Privila articles on my personal website. They also give a letter of recommendation (if you were good) at the end of the internship.

Overall, I'm very pleased.

Paprikapink said...

That sounds great annonymous. I wish you'd left a link to your website here so I could see your clips.

EKL said...

thanks for your thoughts and for google (leading me to your blog). As a SAHM with a background in writing, I was vaguely entertaining the idea of applying, but was a little weirded-out by the generalized content of their website.

If this is a legitimate and "non-evil" website, they really should be less vague about their business.

cattails said...

Most companies have privacy policies and works you do on their behalf remain property of said company. What I don't get is they give you a topic and key words but nothing about what content they want - what you are actually writing for. Do they want a "how to", "informational" or "where to get"? So it gets a little frustrating when you are asked to re-write an article 3 times because they change what they want after you have written it. After the first article I was told I had very good writing and research skills. There was one correction suggested, which I made and re-submitted. Then they came back and said they wanted it written completely different which I did while trying to work on that day’s article. You have a 500-800 word article due everyday - or 5 a week so by the time you have re-written each one 2 or 3 times you are writing way more than 5,
which are used to promote someone's website. My opinion is you are not writing just one article for a website you are writing several. Otherwise why would they not be upfront with the preferred content from the start? I may be wrong but it seems like you are doing some one else's work who reap the benefits while you are unpaid. Definitely overkill in my opinion. Everything they do is vague, nothing is upfront. Nor does their website offer any kind of enlightenment.

Cynthia said...

Regarding Privila internships, I just spoke to Pamela Akins in management there. She said they get 30-40 applicants per week, offer 10 a chance to write a sample article, from which about 4 are offered the internship. So it sounds fairly competitive.

Pamela didn't have any statistics or information on how many of the interns are successful in finding related paid work after completion of the program; but after talking with her, I feel confident that the internship will be worthwhile in gaining experience that will both improve my skills and appeal to potential employers. Learning about Search Engine Optimization sounds very useful, as does practice tailoring to keyword usage.

Privila has only been around two years, but it sounds like the company is very professional, building strong relationships with academic institutions, and committed to being mutually beneficial to both parties. Indentured servitude implies a debt-based contract which cannot be broken. This is more of an apprenticeship which can be dropped at any time with no negative consequences.

Pamela told me the five-articles-per-week requirement is not set in stone and can be reduced to two or three if needed. (I'll be doing three/wk since I'm working two full-time jobs concurrently). Hope this helps others researching this internship opportunity...

Anonymous said...

I recently completed this internship. It sucked horribly. They hardly edit articles and publish them with all kinds of small errors. It's demanding, boring and a waste of time. I would give anything to have those 15 weeks of my life back. No one important reads the articles. There are hundreds of much more fulfilling writing internships available out there. Check craigslist and mediabistro.com.

I hope this helps save at least a few people from the horror that is the Privila "internship".

Victoria Strauss said...

After being spammed with a link request, Richard Clayton of the Light Blue Touchpaper blog decided to investigate Privila and its unpaid internships. His conclusions aren't flattering:

In my view the interns are being exploited — not only are they working for free, but one glance at the articles shows that there isn’t a sub-editor teaching them the trade; the spelling, grammar and article structure are simply not being corrected. Hence the resume they’re hoping to build up will not stand them in very good stead.