What would you agree to for a writer’s residency?

Image of Denver Platform and Amtrak  Train

Denver Platform View, copyright Kathleen Crislip

There is a lot of chatter around the Amtrak Residency Program for writers. Free long-distance train ride with a sleeper car equipped with a bed, a desk and outlets. Countryside views unattainable from any other type of trip. Inspiration.

Writers flooded Amtrak with applications—8,500 in just the first week. Twitter is ablaze with the hashtag, #AmtrakResidency. This tells me that for many this opportunity is worth the cost. By cost, I don’t mean an application fee because there is none. The cost is giving up all rights to application materials, which includes a writing sample of up to 10 pages.

In legal-speak, the Official Terms of the program include provision 6, “Grant of Rights,” as quoted below.

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. . . . 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.)

Critics have come out against the program for this reason. Dan Zak calls it a sham in his Washington Post article. Mr. Zak points out the media coup this is for Amtrak, now getting crazy publicity for their long-distance trips, which are reportedly operating in the red by millions. Ben Cosman, writing for The Wire, shares parts of an email from Julia Quinn, Amtrak’s Social Media Director, written to The Wire, clarifying Amtrak’s intentions:

The terms do not apply to any work the residents produce while on the residency.

The idea would be to potentially use the applications as a way to promote the program. . . the selected residents with an excerpt from their application.

This would happen through a conversation with the applicant.

As to be expected, not all writers are overjoyed or applying. Writers who had planned to apply after the initial Twitter buzz changed their minds once they learned of the cost, namely provision 6. Amtrak doesn’t just retain the rights to writers’ application materials if they win 1 of the 24 spots in the program. They retain the rights to all submissions, whether chosen or not. Though Ms. Quinn from Amtrak says they would have a “conversation” with applicants first. A conversation, of course, doesn’t mean Amtrak will only publish or use submitted writing if the writer gives approval. The terms are very clear that that is not the case.

Miral Sattar was one of those writers who was initially excited and then doubtful. Her article for PBS’s MediaShift looks at what the residency actually offers: just a round trip train ride on a long-distance route for 2 to 5 days—no food, no incidentals, no other travel expenses. It also looks at the strange way that provision 6 may help writers who submit already published work, which is allowed, by providing them with a way to promote and market those works. Ms. Sattar isn’t applying for the Amtrak Residency. Instead she started a competing residency, BiblioCrunch Residency Program, offering a train ride without having to give up rights to your work.

Conservatives in D.C. are not fans of the residency but not because they are worried about the artistic rights of writers and their work. They are upset because Amtrak has received government subsidies and now they are just giving away free rides. You can read more about it in Eric Jaffe’s article in The Atlantic Cities article.

Image of Abandoned Railway

Abandoned Railway

Putting all of the hype, hope and dissatisfaction aside, what does this mean for the future of writers and corporate sponsorship? One writer proposes that more corporations, such as Starbucks, Southwest Airlines and Apple, should provide writing residencies (article in Flavorwire).

Is there a difference between being paid for writing something for a corporation and being given something so that the corporation can promote itself with you and your work? Is it a matter of the intention of the written work? The way in which the work is used? The way in which the writer, her or his identity, is used? Is everything for sale or barter? Are some things sacred? Or is it a matter of who will profit from the work—the writer or the corporation—and receiving adequate compensation?

Tell me what you think. I sure don’t have all of the answers.


Photo credits: Denver Platform View, copyright Kathleen Crislip (via About.com Student Travel); Abandoned Railway courtesy of dan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


  • Asa Maria says:

    Whoa! I had no idea about all these shenanigans. When I first heard about the Amtrak residencies, I thought they sounded kind of cool. Not so anymore.

    • Erin says:

      I’m sure many writers didn’t read the terms. I’m betting others are writing something specifically for the submission and don’t care if it is “owned” by Amtrak. Those who are published and submit published work… I’m most curious about them and their publishers and how that will play out. Amtrak wants permission from any person(s) named in writing, but didn’t specify permission from publishers of published work. I’m not sure their legal team understands the realm of publishing very well.

  • Asa Maria says:

    Also, welcome Erin! :-)

  • Jere says:

    Wow! I learned something new today, Thank Erin for giving us this information. I don’t like the idea of someone else “editing” my work, even if there is a “conversation.” What would that conversation look like?

    • Erin says:

      I know. I imagined the conversation going something like this…

      Amtrak: We plan to use the first 3 paragraphs and the last 2 paragraphs of your story to promote out train travel.

      Writer: What about everything in between? If you cut out the heart of the story, the reader won’t know what’s going on.

      Amtrak: Yes, but we only want the parts that mention trains.

      Writer: …???

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I have no problem with Amtrak using the application materials of the writers who win the residency. As long as the terms are clear there, it feels like a fair exchange. But to have the rights to any and all applicants? Doesn’t seem fair…

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