Take it from a viral media star: Stop signing away your ideas


Earlier this month, two favorites at Buzzfeed Video—my friend Brittany Ashley, who created, wrote, and acted in an LGBTQ series called “Lesbian Princess,” and Jenny Lorenzo, who wrote, produced, and acted for the company’s Latino channel, Pero Like—were abruptly fired. They were dismissed because they’d worked on the weekends as actors in America Ferrera’s “Gente-fied” web series, which was deemed in competition with a telenovela series Buzzfeed is developing. Ashley and Lorenzo, like most Buzzfeed Motion Pictures staffers, had been required to sign an agreement when they were hired that prevented them from doing anything that competed with their work at Buzzfeed.

These sorts of restrictions, once reserved for high-level executives to protect trade secrets and their investments in talent, have become increasingly common. Non-competes are just one corporate-friendly condition in documents creative people sign when they get hired by media companies. Many of us are also asked to sign away rights to the work we do for employers. Sometimes these clauses are incredibly broad, and they can last for a while after you leave the company. Not owning all of your ideas can limit a burgeoning career, especially in an era of job-hopping and layoffs—unlike in the old days, when employee loyalty could translate into a lifelong, unionized job. Even now, many creators in traditional Hollywood studios are protected by powerful unions. But the talent plucked for web series are usually young and inexperienced, and tasked with navigating this brave new world of digital video on their own.

I understand why companies ask all this of their employees. For certain industries or workers, these policies might be an okay trade-off in exchange for a regular paycheck, experience, and training. And for struggling artists and writers—especially the ones often excluded from mainstream media—being offered access to a giant audience may seem worth toiling away at a company for a starter salary. But the people signing these contracts should know what they’re up against. If you have dreams of, say, having your own show or writing your own screenplay, handing over your ideas to a media company could backfire.

I learned this the hard way.

Not too long ago, I was desperate for paid work, so I gave away a lot of my ideas and rights. In 2013 I was a staff writer for the website Thought Catalog and they asked me if they could publish a book of my previously published TC essays. An editor and I put it together while I was a salaried employee for no extra money. I did not receive any bonus or commission on sales of the book. But wow! I had gotten to publish a book! Incredible!  Three years later, I no longer work at TC. I am more well-known and have more fans. These fans find the book and excitedly purchase it thinking they’re supporting me. But I don’t see any of that money. The more high-profile I become, the more the book sells for Thought Catalog.

When you’re 22, you’re so excited to be doing adulthood “right” that you go full-steam ahead, regardless of the company’s policy.

After that, I got hired at Buzzfeed, and it happened again. I was hired first as on-camera talent and then as a scripted series writer. I was excited to have a steady writing gig and thrilled by the $55,000 annual salary. Before being hired there, I had no idea the company had a huge YouTube presence, but I thought I’d stay a couple of months, find another industry gig, and peace out. I ended up staying eight months because the non-compete caused me to turn down other work and meetings that might have led to other work. There was a constant push-and-pull about how much we could do outside of Buzzfeed and how much other projects would take time from our full-time jobs. Even the concept of “time” was up for debate. I stayed because I felt trapped.

I left Buzzfeed in 2015, but they still own a Facebook fan page with my face on it. They can promote whatever they want there using my name and image. I still show up on their Snapchat account sometimes. They could conceivably cut together all the videos I made for them into a series, sell that series for millions of dollars using my work and my name and likeness, and not give me a penny or tell me about it at all. All of this is 100% legal.

I haven’t been shy in the past about publicly criticizing Buzzfeed and other companies. But to be clear, this is ultimately my fault. Back then I never read contracts. I signed them as fast as possible so I could cash my paychecks. I didn’t have a manager or a lawyer. Sometimes my mom would look them over but I’d resent having to send them to her; I worried if she took too long or wanted to make too many changes, the people hiring me would change their minds. The economy is such that college graduates will do anything to get a “good job.” A good job has benefits and a salary, even if that salary is low, even if there’s no union or industry standard rates. College doesn’t exactly prepare you for your first job’s paperwork. When you’re 22, you’re so excited to be doing adulthood “right” that you go full-steam ahead, regardless of the company’s policy. And some companies take advantage of that.

This system especially hurts women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. There are limited job options in the entertainment industry for these groups. Though “diversity” is a big buzzword, in practice nearly 80% of show runners are white men. So for marginalized artists, a creative job writing, directing, or acting seems like a godsend. This amazing company is going to allow you to do something you love for money! A major reason companies can get away with one-sided agreements is because we don’t know our own worth. We think we should be grateful for the chance—often given to us by straight, cis, white men—and when they underpay us or overwork us, we should be thrilled with our own exploitation.

Take it from me: It is not worth it.

Because what happens when you either quit or are fired from one of these companies, like Ashley and Lorenzo were recently? Sure, you can put the job on your resume, but a lot of these places don’t give writers credit and take ownership of their ideas. My contract restricted me from working for competitors for a year. I gave these things away for peanuts. (Freelancers give them away for even less. When Ashley was first working on a Buzzfeed scripted series called “You Do You,” she was paid as a freelancer making $15 an hour.)

Women, LGBTQ people, and people of color at media companies: Protect yourself. Know your worth.

Recently, a couple of friends trying to get out of one of these contracts asked me and my creative partner, Allison Raskin, if our manager might be interested in representing them. Our manager immediately asked if they have anything that isn’t owned by a company. Neither of them did. As recently as March, I was struggling financially while making my own content on our YouTube channel “Just Between Us.” Raskin and I owned it, but it was not paying the bills. Still, when she and I sold a pilot to a network last year, it was based on a video we’d made for our independent channel. The big reason we could sell the show? We owned the video it was based on.

I know it’s easy for me to give hindsight advice like “Don’t ever give up!” to people who might be seriously broke. But I was broke, too, and the better option was to do the hard work on my own, and to occasionally use these places for a boost. If I could go back in time, I would have freelanced for a bunch of companies at once, getting my face in front of all their audiences, and not taken a full-time, restrictive job at any of them.

My friend Brittani Nichols, a black lesbian writer who appeared in “You Do You,” made a film called “Suicide Kale” that’s killing the festival circuit right now. She had no budget, no backing from any company, no investors. She and some friends made the movie on their own time with their own money. She spent weeks doing nothing but researching festivals, filling out festival applications, asking for fee waivers. Guess what? The process sucked. It cost her money and time. But in the end, she owns the film she made and no one can ever take it away from her.

Granted, not every workplace has such stringent policies. Before I became an online video creator, I was a journalist, and I took full-time jobs at websites and blogs while I freelanced on the side. While on staff at a small news blog, I got an offer to write a piece for the New York Times. My bosses understood. It made their blog look more legit if one of their writers was also writing for the Gray Lady. It was seen as a win-win. Funny or Die has a similar policy. Staffers sell TV shows and movies and are welcomed back to FoD, which champions their success outside the company as a benefit to the legitimacy of the company.

In other words, there’s a way for companies to produce good work while still supporting employees as individuals. As the writer Ashley Ford tweeted earlier this week: “There’s nothing wrong with making trade-offs, but compromise shouldn’t mean your employer always gets the better deal. You should win too.”

So women, LGBTQ people, and people of color at media companies: Protect yourself. Know your worth. Don’t be afraid to ask for more—changes to the standard agreements, more money, writer’s credits, respect, anything. You don’t have to be thankful to be there. They should understand the essential value of having you on staff. And not just so they look as progressive and liberal as they proclaim to be, but because your unique insight is invaluable and your work makes the workplace better. Don’t sign yourself away because you don’t want to do the hard work of being independent and don’t think marrying yourself to a company led by lots of straight white men is the only way to get ahead. Do it yourself. And if you do decide to work for one of these places, stay woke—read your contract, use your job for exposure, protect your own ideas, and get out as soon as you can.

Editors’ note: Earlier this week, Buzzfeed published an internal memo on their policies at Buzzfeed Motion Pictures, which they provided as a statement in response to this essay.  In it, Buzzfeed gives the following explanation for their policies:  “We’re investing heavily in you, and we do ask for a real commitment in return. Concretely, this means that the work you do while you’re on BuzzFeed’s staff belongs to BuzzFeed, and that you can’t work for other productions without our permission. Being a part of BuzzFeed is a full-time job, with many benefits and opportunities, and as with any full-time job you are expected to be fully committed to your work and collaborating with your colleagues while you are here. These are, it’s worth noting, standard features of being an employee at any media or tech company—but we realize they’re different from the freelance Hollywood models…”

BuzzFeed declined to comment on its employment of Gaby Dunn, Brittany Ashley, and Jenny Lorenzo.

Thought Catalog said that “Gaby’s e-book…was simply a compilation of stories already written by her and published on Thought Catalog, not a separate piece of work with original material.” The company added that “it advocates creators to work on their own terms, and it’s up to the writer as to which path they choose at Thought Catalog: employment versus self-employment.”

As for Fusion, it owns the work that its employees create if the work is connected to their job, and requires permission for outside employment to avoid conflicts of interest and interference with job responsibilities.

Gaby Dunn is a writer, comedian, journalist and YouTuber living in Los Angeles. Her comedy channel with her best friend Allison Raskin can be found at youtube.com/justbetweenusshow.

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