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.
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.