Not reading the T&Cs (Mistake #43)

They’re boring, aren’t they, the terms and conditions to writing competitions. Life’s too short to read them, really. It’s time wasted that could be directed towards writing. They’re written in legalese, and that’s impenetrable, isn’t it. Bi-ig yawn. And they can’t be that bad, anyway. You’re not going to be asked to sign away a kidney, are you. If they were that bad, the organisers would get into trouble. There’s surely a law to stop them being really bad. Anyway, everyone else seems okay with them. Safety in numbers, and all that. It’s fine.

It’s not always fine and they can be bad and you must read them. Last year I wrote an article for Writers’ News (August 2010) about the problem of questionable terms and conditions to writing competitions and some blogs, especially those relating to travel. There’s a little bit on the Copyright and publishing law page on this. As an example, here’s a term on Holiday Velvet’s writing competition, now ended but still online, which reads “Holiday Velvet retains copyright on all copy submitted” (Term 8).

I’ve seen a lot like this. And you’d be surprised at some of those involved, including those presenting themselves as pro-writers. Will save that for another day.

Basically: copyright is the right to profit from what you write. It is automatic. You write it, copyright is yours.

So, what such a competition effectively does is ask for the right to profit from work you submit. This applies to all entries, in many cases – not just the winners. Be clear about what this means. They can sell your work on to countless markets. Publish it wherever they like. Profit from it for all eternity. And not give you a penny.

It may well be their intention not to do this – and, having spoken to and exchanged emails with some organisers, including Holiday Velvet, it is clear this applies to many. Contracts might be drawn up by cautious lawyers, but in any case it is clearly often felt that it’s merely easier to request all rights – it’s less fiddly and messy and it is absolutely clear cut, avoiding any possible time-consuming queries from writers about where they stand. Request it all – copyright – and you don’t have to think about it again.

But, still, the point is they can do what they want with it, and you can’t tell who is going to use your work and how and where, and who is not. If you do want to reuse the work you submit – perhaps in a different competition – you can’t. You’d have to get permission. They may well grant it, but still.

I mentioned the Holiday Velvet term specifically because I dislike the use of the word ‘retains’, from which it could easily be inferred that copyright is something that is theirs to start with. It is not. It is yours to ‘assign’ – not theirs to ‘retain’. Again, I’ve seen other instances of this, and I feel it should always be objected to, because it promotes the misconception that copyright is not in writers’ control – when it always is.

Last month on My Writers’ Circle, the writing forum from the terrific Nick Daws, a post appeared inviting writers to submit a story to a future book being put together in aid of Body Gossip, a charitable initiative to promote positive body image. I checked the T&Cs, and personally found term 6b objectionable, as it requested writers assign copyright to the company behind Body Gossip.

I certainly don’t want to attack, or be seen to be attacking, a clearly worthwhile and charitable cause – but neither do I think such organisations should be immune to criticism or allowed greater leeway to claim additional rights from writers.

I tried a few ways to get in touch with them – replying to the MWC post, Twitter, email – and it took a week to get what turned out to be a very generous response from Ruth Rogers, who is closely involved in the campaign.

She explained that volunteer lawyers drew up the contracts to allow for the option to spread the word about the initiative as far and wide as possible – and that she didn’t want to tinker with the terms at this stage. Neither did she want to get distracted from the aims of the initiative. I understood and accepted all this.

She added this: “We do not want to exclude authors with stories to share that will benefit themselves and others from submitting simply because they are uncomfortable with the idea of agreeing to assign copyright. Therefore, people who don’t want to submit via the website can submit their stories by email to story (at) bodygossip.org, provided that they state in the email that they agree to all of the terms and conditions on the Body Gossip website with the exception of agreeing to assign the copyright to their work.”

I respect Ruth’s response and wish the initiative well.

At this point, I’d like to dispel the idea that a T&C other than an outright copyright request need necessarily be complex. It can be simple and still be fully respectful to writers’ rights. A non-exclusive license to use the work in connection with the competition is all that is needed. In the case of Body Gossip, a non-exclusive right to use the work in a book – and perhaps online, if that’s what they want, too. Saying what you want need not be hard. You just need to state it, in terms that people can understand.

Anyway, a small success, I guess, which shows that you can get results from querying terms. Good luck if you enter. And please always stick up for copyright.

Comments 4

  • Hi Alex – really worthwhile post, thanks for writing it. I am thinking about having a competition in connection with a book I'm writing and saying clearly that entrants retain copyright, and also that the piece of work entered can already have been published on their blog or possibly, elsewhere – as the aim of the competition would be to hopefully help a relatively new writer get a step up, not jump through hoops to enter.

  • Thanks for this post Alex. I've seen competitions run by women's magazines which claim all rights for all stories. I can understand clauses claiming the right to print and distribute the winning and perhaps shortlisted stories, but personally I advise steering clear of any comp which takes rights of all entries.

  • Thanks for this reminder Alex. I always look at the terms and conditions for such clauses in competitions I'm considering entering.
    If they want all rights I won't enter.

  • Thanks all – encouraging to hear.

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