Rights Concerns: Amtrak Residency Program

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

The Internet has been buzzing over the past week over the announcement of a writer-focused initiative from Amtrak: the Amtrak Residency Program.
#AmtrakResidency was designed to allow creative professionals who are passionate about train travel and writing to work on their craft in an inspiring environment. Round-trip train travel will be provided on an Amtrak long-distance route. Each resident will be given a private sleeper car, equipped with a desk, a bed and a window to watch the American countryside roll by for inspiration. Routes will be determined based on availability.
Now, I personally can't figure out why anyone would find this tempting. Then again, I'm a veteran of Amtrak's overcrowded Boston-to-Washington corridor, where late arrivals and yucky restrooms are always a possibility. I've also done long-distance train traveling, and am painfully familiar with what Amtrak means by a "bed." (Have any of you seen the Sex and the City episode where Carrie and Samantha, anticipating a romantic train trip, discover the reality of a sleeper car? Yeah. It was like that.) So consider me battle-scarred.

Nevertheless, the idea of writing on a train seems to have wide appeal. Announcement of the Residency Program was greeted with many happy tweets and glowing social media shares. Until, that is, writers started looking at the fine print, a.k.a. Amtrak's Official Terms.

The major concern is the Grant of Rights (bolding is mine):
6.   Grant of Rights: In submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties. In addition, Applicant hereby represents that he/she has obtained the necessary rights from any persons identified in the Application (if any persons are minors, then the written consent of and grant from the minor’s parent or legal guardian); and, Applicant grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy the name, image, and/or likeness of Applicant and the names of any such persons identified in the Application for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing. For the avoidance of doubt, one’s Application will NOT be kept confidential (and, for this reason, it is recommended that the writing sample and answers to questions not contain any personally identifiable information – e.g., name or e-mail address – of Applicant.) Upon Sponsor's request and without compensation, Applicant agrees to sign any additional documentation that Sponsor may require so as to effect, perfect or record the preceding grant of rights and/or to furnish Sponsor with written proof that he/she has secured any and all necessary third party consents relative to the Application.
I don't think anyone should be surprised that Amtrak wants to use the Residency Program for advertising and marketing. In this, it's little different from many other organizations. Even many publishing contracts require authors to grant the right to use their names, images, and excerpts from their work for publicity purposes. If you don't like that, don't apply.

However, the open-ended nature of the Grant of Rights is troubling. It includes all applicants--not just those who are accepted for Residencies. It extends indefinitely. And the whole application, which doesn't require applicants to provide a street address or phone number, but does require them to share their email address and Twitter handle, is non-confidential and can be copied and distributed at will.

What problems might this pose? Well, you might not want to grant a big corporation the power to share your email address.

You also might not want to grant it sweeping publishing rights (and, as I was reminded the other day, Amtrak is a publisher: it has its own magazine, Arrive). For most people, the writing sample they submit (just 10 pages) is going to be a partial; if it's unpublished and part of a much longer work, rights conflicts probably aren't an issue. A professional book publisher, for instance, isn't likely to care that you've encumbered rights to 10 pages of your 350-page novel. But what if the sample is part of a shorter work, of which 10 pages is a much larger proportion? A short fiction or freelance market might well have a problem with that. And if the sample is a complete story or article, forget it--you won't be able to place it anywhere else.

Also, if your sample is part of a published work, how might the rights you've already granted conflict with the rights Amtrak is demanding? And why should writers who submit and are not chosen for the Residency have to struggle with these questions at all?

There's been a fair bit of concern over all of this over the past few days. In a discussion on Reddit, Amtrak's Social Media Director, Julia Quinn, has said that negative feedback is being "forwarded on internally." Let's hope so. In the meantime, if Julia happens to be reading, here are my suggestions for improvement--and don't worry, they're pretty easy:

1. Terminate the Grant of Rights on rejection. If you're not chosen for a Residency, your rights automatically return to you, free and clear.

2. Make the Grant of Rights nonexclusive. If successful applicants decide to market the work of which their sample is a part, this would eliminate any question about whether someone else has the right to publish.

3. Limit the term of the Grant of Rights. To a period of 5 years, for instance.

4. Limit the application's non-confidentiality to writers' names, writing samples, and writing question responses. This would allow Amtrak plenty of material for marketing and publicity, while relieving writers of the worry that their contact info might be made public.

5. Make the changes retroactive. If the terms are improved, writers who've already applied should be included.

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>