Putting out a contract on us

I always enjoy the class session on contracts. Two, actually. In any six-week class, I devote 1-1/2 sessions to contracts because they’re that important. I haul out my big soapbox, warn the students that they’re going to get an impassioned rant (is there any other kind?), and go off.

They’ve got to admit it’s entertaining. The 1-1/2 sessions cover Al Gore inventing the Internet (kidding! no comments, please), publishers figuring out what to do with the new electronic box with its blinking orange or green cursor, Jonathan Tasini getting sand kicked in his face and teaming up with the UAW, this “et al” suing that “et al,” historians wailing about lost data, the Supremes adding one plus one, the writers winning the battle but losing the war, and corporate lawyers making up such phrases as “heretofore to be invented throughout the universe.”

In a big class especially, it’s fun to listen while students read the two sample contracts. I’ve warned them that one is worse than the other, but it might not be as easy to tell which is which as it was with the two sample queries earlier in the class. In silence they read suspiciously, carefully, parsing out the legalese. Then someone gets to the “throughout the universe” line and gasps. And I suppress a giggle.

I like lawyers. I lived with a lawyer. I watch lawyer shows. I like the lawyers I’ve worked with. But the ones who write freelance contracts? Uh-uh. Evil moneygrubbing rights grabbers! Ripoff artists! Obnoxiously ignorant, too, when they insist that this is work made for hire (and often follow that by insisting that if a court finds it isn’t, it is anyway).

Last week I explained the full ramifications of selling all rights. The look of horror on at least two faces was satisfying. When I explained this week why I feel so passionately about this, spending quite a while spelling out all the ancillary rights it’s possible to use and illustrating by anecdote all the potential those rights have even if you doubt you’ll use them, the dawning understanding on more faces was equally satisfying. As always, I enumerated the three reasons I (almost) never sign an all-rights contract: It’s bad for me, it’s bad for other writers (I don’t want to encourage the bastards), and I want to be able to come to class and tell my students that I didn’t sign. It does undermine my point a bit that I have to explain these days having signed a few, but there’s context to that, and I hope the greater lesson gets through. Certainly the many times I concluded, “I’m glad I kept the rights” and “I sure hope s/he kept the rights” must have sunk in.

It occurs to me that my 1-1/2 sessions on contracts come off a bit like Star Wars. There’s the classic good-versus-evil, underdog-versus-Goliath story, with heroes and villains and larger-than-life characters – and while in real life the little guys are losing to the evil empire, there is hope; there are rebels who win victories and push back with pluck and smarts. Maybe ASJA and Contracts Watch will win the day after all. I doubt they’ll blow up the Death Star on Times Square, but maybe they’ll, ah, put out a contract on it.

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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