If you follow HubSpot's various blogging platforms it will be difficult to ignore the controversy they're addressing today: Who Owns Your Content? There's no question it's a tricky issue to tackle. And it's not just business vs employee rights. There's also the question of what rights a freelancer has when they're doing work for an agency or client. Their ability to sell themselves is based on demonstrated skills across a range of content forms and subject matter. What rights should they have to promote themselves by using work for which they've been paid? What about ghostwriters? They're paid to write on behalf of someone else, so how do they get credit for their work? As you can see, this stuff is complicated and getting more complicated quickly because of the way the content business is exploding.
For the focus of this post I'm going to stay close to home and concentrate on the issue of business vs employee rights, mostly because we've relied almost exclusively on employee-generated content for our inbound marketing efforts and so the issue really matters to us.
So on one hand, if a business hires someone as an employee, and their job responsibilities include writing a blog or producing case studies or white papers, it seems obvious that the business should own that content because they paid the employee to create it. In the case of our blog, for example, even though posts each have individual authorship attributed, they all are published under the company blog masthead, and are protected by a Weidert Group copyright claim. Our policy is clear: the company claims ownership into perpetuity of content produced by employees for the purpose of promoting the company or demonstrating our knowledge or capabilities.
A Question of Balance and Equity
Is there anything wrong with that view? Well, at first blush it feels awfully one-sided in favor of the business, but the reality of what actually happens in this kind of relationship or transaction is much more beautifully balanced and equitable than it seems at first. Consider that for most people who create content, what they most need is an opportunity to write (or design, produce, etc.) and a platform that will get them noticed.
Think about where great American columnists have historically come from: most of them came from US daily newspapers. People like Roger Ebert and Mike Royko of the Chicago Sun-Times, Kathleen Parker and George Will of the Washington Post, or William Safire and Red Smith of the New York Times. Great writers who became great brands because they were exposed to demanding audiences through their publisher-employer.
In the online world of today exposure can be even more valuable and audiences can grow as fast as an idea or voice can propel them, so the possibility for creating a personal brand that ignites a career is ever-present. Providing a solid platform for an aspiring writer by giving them the privilege and responsibility of authorship is a beautiful gift, and great consideration in exchange for content ownership by their employer.
Make the Rules Clear
Now, if as an employer you talk to an employment law expert about things like content rights, they're likely to tell you about two steps you can take to protect yourself:
• First, include a section in your employee handbook covering your policy about content created for the company by someone who is an employee. Seek out models you can learn from of businesses that bear similarities to your own.
• Second, it's reasonable to ask employees who are part of your company's external brand to sign a non-compete agreement, which can also be used to explicitly clarify what they can and can't do with content they authored if they leave your company. Again, seek models that apply to your business.
In the end, make sure you never stop reminding your content creators that even though the business has the honor of owning some of their content forever, the business is helping them create something far more valuable that they'll own as long as their gray matter keeps working: their personal brands. And it's tough to put a price on that.