Image: YouTube

Earlier this week, Ze Frank—the leader of BuzzFeed’s burgeoning video empire, BuzzFeed Motion Pictures—issued a public memo to his employees explaining the terms of their employment. The crux of the memo—the necessity of which was sparked by Frank firing two women for appearing in videos produced by other companies—comes when he states what BuzzFeed Motion Pictures employees owe to their employer:

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, and wanted to explain each. We ask for the following:

  • Ownership of Content. The work created by you and the collaborative teams you’re a part of while at the company is owned by BuzzFeed. As is standard across tech and media companies, BuzzFeed owns the work that you, our employees, create. It enables us to create a culture where ideas are easily shared and adapted, and where we can use our successes to grow our business and fund new areas of experimentation.
  • Exclusivity. You cannot work for anyone else while you work for us unless you ask permission for an exception. An approval process allows BuzzFeed to assess whether the proposed outside work will interfere or compete with your work at BuzzFeed. In addition, you cannot work on personal projects outside of BuzzFeed that impact your ability to work for us.

I’ll highlight the most important part of this excerpt: “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.” This is a neat rhetorical trick: Frank is saying that he wants his employees to produce like Hollywood talent while being treated like journalists. Very few TV writers or actors would trade their jobs to become journalists.

Frank’s attempt to define his employees as existing in some gray area between Hollywood and journalism is an important one. In the television and film industries—both of which BFMP is aiming to usurp—pay is standardized. 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.

None of those things are true (again, generally speaking) in media. Pay is negotiated privately and shrouded in secret. Most writers are not entitled to money if the owners of our work decide to republish it. Freelancing is usually at the discretion of our employers. You can see why Frank would want his employees to be part of the latter group instead of the former.

The main difference here is that television and film are deeply unionized. New media organizations are not, though that is changing. Gawker Media, Vice, Huffington Post and Salon are some the web native publications that have unionized in the last year. Our ranks are growing. As part of our first union contract, Gawker Media staffers negotiated for a standardized pay scale. If we want to republish something we’ve written for the company in a book, we get 100 percent of the royalties. Our art department is allowed to license drawings they’ve made for Gawker sites to third parties. These are baby steps, but necessary ones.

Increasingly, our small slice of the industry is realizing the power of collective bargaining, and I can’t think of a subset of people that are in greater need of that power than the employees of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. At Fusion, ex-BuzzFeed video staffer Gabby Dunn wrote about the contract she signed when she began working there in 2014:

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.

This is a gallingly disadvantageous position for BuzzFeed talent to be in. Matt Bellassai—BuzzFeed video’s breakout star—had to give up the Facebook page for his BuzzFeed web series when he left the company, forcing him to rebuild from scratch his following on the world’s most important social network. That old page has 1.5 million fans; his current page has 416,000.

None of this is to say that working at BuzzFeed Motion Pictures is hell, or that its employees are an oppressed class. Before he explains to his staffers that their work is owned by BuzzFeed and that they can’t work outside of the company, Frank reminds them that BuzzFeed allows its talent access to an established infrastructure (studio space, an audience) and provides them with benefits such as paid vacation and investment in retirement.

But clearly BuzzFeed is taking advantage of its video talent because they are collectively powerless. Only the employees can change this. In fact, they have a unique opportunity to decide what a union that sits at the intersection of entertainment and media might look like. 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, even if it meant ceding some ground elsewhere.

In a company meeting last August, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti said that a union “wouldn’t be very good for employees at BuzzFeed.” Everyone at BuzzFeed, but especially those at Motion Pictures, should think deeply about whether he is right.