Have You Read the #AmtrakResidency’s Fine Print?

Writers and trains have a long, complicated history. In a December PEN American interview, writer Alexander Chee casually mentioned that he loved to write on trains and wished there were some kind of residency offered for writers. Jessica Gross pounced on the idea and took her cause to Twitter. Faster than anyone could realize what was happening, Amtrak embraced the idea and awarded Gross a trial residency, in the form of a free round-trip ride from New York to Chicago.

After what must have been very quick deliberation, Amtrak released the official guidelines and application form for the #AmtrakResidency Program this weekend. But while many writers immediately jumped at the opportunity to apply, others have noticed some troubling language in the program’s Official Terms. As Elliott Holt pointed out on Twitter, clause 6 states:

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.

To our non-legally-trained eyes, the terms come just short of granting Amtrak actual ownership of writers’ application materials — namely, the required writing sample. Amtrak has reserved the right to use the writing samples of all applicants (not just the winners) in any way they see fit, as well as the right to extend the same privilege to a third party of their choosing.

The same clause goes on to state that “[f]or the avoidance of doubt, one’s Application will NOT be kept confidential.” Additionally, “[u]pon 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.” This seems awfully open-ended to our (again) non-legally-trained eyes.

While every publication and contest organizer can create their own individual agreements with writers who submit their work, the general consensus in the publishing world is that publications aren’t interested in owning writers’ work outright, but simply in publishing it. Amtrak is demanding an exorbitant level of control over applicants’ writing — writing which, it should be noted, isn’t being submitted in order to be considered for publication. The spirit of the program’s Official Terms seems to run counter to the ideas of creativity and authorship that are espoused by the diverse community of writers whose support helped make the residency a reality in the first place.

On Sunday, Alexander Chee tweeted that he had reached out to Amtrak regarding clause 6, and Amtrak has “responded that they are working to address [the] concerns.” Replying to some inquiring writers via Twitter, Amtrak said that they “would reach out to/have a conversation with any applicant before using their work for promotional purposes.” Of course, the Official Terms do not require this, nor is there anything to prevent Amtrak from using writing samples however they choose even after contacting the author.

It remains to be seen what, if any, changes will be made to the legal terms. In the meantime, it’s a good lesson for writers and artists of any kind to always read the fine print before handing over their work.

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