Are online media companies exploiting creative people?

Photo: A. Aleksandravicius /

Many Millennials have found themselves in the unenviable position of being overburdened with student loan debt and low-paying service sector or freelance jobs. For some of them, the solution seems to lie in something they already know: online media.

For those fortunate enough to be hired by media companies like Buzzfeed or Thought Catalog, a job that pays the bills and allows them to express their creativity seems like a dream come true.

Unfortunately, there’s a catch. Most are required to sign contracts that include non-compete agreements and state that the media companies own the intellectual property rights those individuals produce while on staff there.

Gaby Dunn is one of those people. She worked as a staff writer for Thought Catalog and became one of their more popular authors. “They asked me if they could publish a book of my previously published TC essays,” she writes in a recent post on “An editor and I put it together while I was a salaried employee for no extra money. I did not receive a bonus or commission on sales of the book.”

Not only that, but the book, still in publication, does not net her a dime of royalties.

Then she found herself in a similar situation when she went to work for Buzzfeed. She was hired first as on-camera talent, then she began writing scripted series for the online media company’s YouTube channel.

She originally intended to stay a couple of months and move on to another industry job. But she “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…I stayed because I felt trapped.”

Dunn is the first to admit her woes are ultimately her fault. “Back then I never read contracts,” she writes. “I signed them as fast as possible so I could cash my paychecks. I didn’t have a manager or lawyer. The economy is such that college graduates will do anything to get a ‘good job.’”

What she didn’t know is that it’s fairly typical contract fare for anyone who works in publishing—online or otherwise—that the organization for which an individual works owns the intellectual property rights to anything that individual produces for that company.

Non-compete agreements are pretty typical for most workplaces as well. However, some of the more problematic non-competes forbid employees from working for competitors for a year after employment is terminated. That is what happened to Dunn, and it prevented her from working for other online media companies or making money while building her independent online presence.

Regardless of whether or not the contracts from large online media companies are fair to employees, Dunn argues that the system especially hurts women, people of color, and LGBTQ people because of limited opportunities in the mainstream entertainment system.

“A major reason companies can get away with one-sided agreements is because we don’t know our own worth,” Dunn writes. “We think we should be grateful for the chance…and when they underpay us or overwork us, we should be thrilled with our own exploitation.”

The ultimate lesson for creative people getting involved with large online media companies is that they need to protect themselves as much as possible. It’s crucial to read and understand any contracts and, if necessary, get a lawyer, manager, or agent to review them.

But the bottom line is that it is still an unfair practice to exploit creative professionals—especially those in marginalized communities—who are looking for decent jobs and a chance to share their voices with the world.

What do you think? Are these companies exploiting people desperate for jobs? Is it the individuals’ fault for not reading and understanding their contracts? Is it a little bit of both? Please share your thoughts in the comments.