Earlier this week, Ze Frank issued a company-wide memo reminding employees how lucky they are to be employees for Buzzfeed, outlining the various standard benefits offered by an extremely well-funded company. Among these are health benefits, a 401K plan, access to production equipment and paid time off. In exchange for these basic employment benefits, Frank asserts that Buzzfeed is entitled to ownership of all content created and exclusivity, meaning employees are not allowed to do outside projects related to production or content creation. The memo was reportedly prompted by a recent breach of those two clauses by employees participating in non-Buzzfeed projects. These employees were consequently fired.
And, therein, lays the can of worms that Frank may have opened that calls the risk and reward for empowering creators to create in a basic at-will employment structure into question.
On one hand, companies like Buzzfeed and Awesomeness TV are employing and paying creatively talented people to produce volumes of video, and formats, that take the value of the company into the millions. On the other, the challenge lays in structuring deals that honor both the creator and the company. So, to that effect, is the industry on the cusp of receiving a tidal wave of creators that demand first-look or rights-sharing deals for succecssful IP?
Let’s point to an example, or two. Earlier this year, comedian Matt Bellassai, best known for Buzzfeed’s “Whine About It,” a series he created using Buzzfeed’s infrastructure, was signed to CAA. In order to work on his own projects, and capitalize on the 1.5 million fans he had amassed on Facebook courtesy of Buzzfeed, Bellassai had to abandon the format. Buzzfeed also took over his Facebook page “BuzzfeedMatt” now renamed “WhineDownOfficial.” Bellassai was forced to start anew, after debuting his final episode, “Reasons Matt Bellassai is the Worst.”
And, in 2013, famed YouTube star Grace Helbig faced a similar outcome with MyDamnChannel (now Omnivision Entertainment), the company that had hired Grace as talent and thus retained ownership of her YouTube channel, content and historic video library. She was forced to restart her business on YouTube from scratch as “It’sGrace.” Examples like these don’t pose win-wins. They are losses for all involved — the publisher, the creator and the fans.
And this isn’t just a problem for Buzzfeed. It’s a potential flood gate about to burst; one that could impact all major publishers following Buzzfeed’s model of content creation. It’s the reason many studios hire outside contractors, or structure contractor relationships — to protect themselves from the murkiness surrounding IP rights and ownership. It’s a model Frank acknowledges in his memo: “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.”
As the online video business gets more sophisticated, publishers and creators alike will need to start considering the implications of rights and IP ownership more closely. And Ze Frank’s memo may have triggered the first domino towards a shift has the potential to become a ground swell of creator dissent.