The young are known for their lofty dreams, which a mammoth media organization can make—or apparently break.
After BuzzFeed Motion Pictures’ (BFMP) stringent non-compete policy resulted in two abrupt employee firings, the rapidly growing video empire reaffirmed its unique terms of employment this week, which critics are calling exploitative.
“You cannot work for anyone else while you work for us,” and, “you cannot work on personal projects outside of BuzzFeed that impact your ability to work for us,” wrote BFMP President Ze Frank in a memo to employees. Furthermore, “[t]he work created by you and the collaborative teams you’re a part of while at the company is owned by BuzzFeed.”
Frank goes on to admit that, “These are… standard features of being an employee at any media or tech company,” but “they’re different from the freelance Hollywood models.”
The firing of BuzzFeed personalities Jenny Lorenzo and Brittany Ashley earlier this month reignited the debate about the growing prevalence of non-compete agreements. The duo were allegedly fired for appearing in a seven episode web series created separately from BuzzFeed while the two were still employed at the site.
The novel approach of placing employees of Hollywood where pay is standardized within a journalism model of employment where pay is privately negotiated is problematic, writes Gawker’s Jordan Sargent. And the effects are compounded by non-competes.
In Hollywood, “writers and actors receive residuals when their work is reused or replayed. Talent in front of and behind the camera is (generally speaking) allowed to book jobs as they come,” writes Sargent. In media, however, “[m]ost writers are not entitled to money if the owners of our work decide to republish it.”
“You can see why Frank would want his employees to be part of the latter group instead of the former,” adds Sargent.
Writer, comedian, and former Daily Dot contributor Gaby Dunn details in Fusion how “handing over your ideas to a media company” (in her case, BuzzFeed) can backfire.
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.
Jen Richards, creator of the web series Her Story and who has appeared in BuzzFeed productions responded to Lorenzo, Ashley, and Dunn’s stories:
I warn my bright young friends not to get involved with @BuzzFeedVideo. It's unrelentingly exploitative of their talent, drive, and hunger.— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) June 10, 2016
While Richards suggests the solution to this seemingly unfair treatment is to “do it yourself” without the backing of an organization that ensures both exposure and benefits, Gawker’s Sargent champions collective bargaining. He points out that TV and film are heavily unionized, whereas media is not, though that is changing.
“If BuzzFeed Motion Pictures staffers unionized—forcing BuzzFeed to negotiate terms of employment that it now simply decrees—they could win back some ground on the vitally important issues of content ownership and exclusivity,” he writes, “even if it meant ceding some ground elsewhere.”