Here’s a thought: I’ll hold a contest for the Best Lawnmower. You and everyone else drop your lawnmower at my house, I’ll carefully evaluate them, and the winner will get a free landscaping session from my brother. (He’s a gardener.)
Your lawnmower might not win, but you won’t have to worry about it anymore. No, you don’t even have to come pick up! You see, when you entered the Best Lawnmower contest, you gave me complete ownership of your lawnmower. I get to keep it. Or use it to mow my own lawn. Or maybe rent it out to someone else so they can make some money with your lawnmower, too. Or maybe I’ll just sell it. The moment you walked your lawnmower onto my property, I owned it. Didn’t you read the fine print? Look, if you didn’t want me to own that lawnmower, you should have just brought me the old one you wanted to get rid of anyway.
You should be happy with this! After all, I’m telling people it’s your lawnmower! What more do you want?
That’s the gist of Amtrak’s current rules for writers submitting for the train residency. The problems with the contract have been discussed in many, many places. Here’s the view of an Intellectual Property Attorney.
I’ve submitted to writing contests. I’ve even won. I’d never send a piece of my writing to a contest, publication, group whatever that thought my writing was worth so little to me that I’d give it away just for the oh-please-pick-me chance at a prize. I’m a no-name, but I’ve kicked around the industry’s edges long enough to see how easily and willingly new writers will fall for the “But everybody does it!” claim if they think there just might be an outside possibility Someone Important will finally see their work. They’ll fall so willingly, they’ll ignore contract conditions that take advantage of them, choosing to believe that’s the price one must pay.
That belief, my darlings, is bullshit.
Do I think Amtrak has knowingly done this? I can’t say. Perhaps Amtrak looked at a few highly advertised contests with unprofessional rules, or perhaps looked at boilerplates of the sort new writers are warned away from signing. Perhaps the transportation company tossed this project together to take advantage of a sudden interest, and didn’t think it through. Or perhaps they knew exactly what they were doing, and were counting on that writerly willingness I mentioned above.
It’s a really cool idea, the whole writers on a train residency, and I’d love to do it myself. Trains and writing are an awesome pairing. But not so awesome that I’ll participate in, and thereby encourage, poor and exploitive practices.
The truth will come when and if Amtrak releases new application rules, now that professional writing organizations and individuals have pointed out these and other contract issues. Until then, I have neither the need nor the inclination to donate my property.
So if you still want that lawnmower of yours back, I suppose I’ll hand it over.
But… Hey… Would you like to enter my Best Pie contest while you’re here?
ETA: Amtrak has confirmed the rights to all parts of all applications, including the writing samples, become Amtrak’s property upon submission, and that the writing from those submissions will be used for Amtrak’s promotional purposes. This isn’t a “business transaction.” It’s a rights-grab.
Truly, if after understanding the principle of the rights-grab, you still think supporting the practice is worth a free train ride, go for it. But don’t go around telling new writers that giving up control of their intellectual property is an honorable standard and therefore not worth worrying one’s pretty little head over.