Okay. So the Times of India Write India Campaign has just managed to piss off a vast number of writers, me included. If you’re new to the topic, I’d suggest you read through this post on author Rasana Atreya’s blog for some context. Otherwise most of my venting will fly right over your head.
For the lazier (and better informed) among you, the brief facts of the case are these:
- Over the last few months, TOI has been running a nationwide event called The Write India Campaign. Regardless of the word ‘Campaign’, it is a writing contest written to prompts given out by some well-known authors.
- Hidden in the Terms and Conditions of the contest page is a clause that claims ownership of exclusive publication rights on all submitted entries for two years, and nonexclusive publication rights on said entries forever. In effect, this means that TOI owns in perpetuity every story that is submitted to the contest.
- Either this clause has been retrospectively added by TOI or had gone unnoticed by participating writers until last weekend. Sometime on Saturday, the director of the campaign, in response to a query, stated categorically that none of the writers are allowed to publish their stories anywhere else.
- That got shared around a bit, and before you knew it a group of writers had arisen, asking questions, murmuring among themselves if this is fair, legal, ethical etc.
To which the director, a lady called Vinita Dawra Nangia, responded with the following message.
Let me bring three things to your attention in this note.
One: notice how Vinita describes the questions as ‘baseless protests’ that ‘go against the spirit with which Write India was conceived and has been conducted’. In other words, if you ask a question, you’re a rabble-rouser.
Two: notice how Vinita takes a high ground in granting you moral and ownership rights to your work. This general tone of condescension is present throughout the message, and in many of her earlier tweets on the issue as well. For instance, when someone asked if they could use their story elsewhere, she said, ‘Remember that every one of you who participated is a winner! You wrote a story! :-)’
Three: notice how Vinita still doesn’t make it clear what is going to happen to all those stories that will never be anthologized. Of the thousands of stories they received, they will probably publish a couple of hundred. What of the others? More importantly, what of the ideas contained in them?
Is what TOI doing legal?
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Yes, it is.
A ‘Terms and Conditions’ document on any website is equivalent to a legally binding contract. If you’ve ticked the check box and clicked on ‘Accept’, you’ve signed the contract.
Yes, the contract is unconscionable. Yes, the contract is unethical. Yes, the contract is exploitative. However, it’s not illegal.
But this is not about TOI
I don’t want to spend too much time talking about TOI or Write India, because to be honest, it’s not really about them. It’s about you, folks. In any other industry, contracts such as these get thrown out with a sneer; people don’t dare offer them.
Did you get that? People don’t dare offer them.
But in publishing, not only do they make these ridiculous offers, but they act all indignant and bemused when you raise questions. What is this, they ask. A writer negotiating on terms? Whatever next, a flying pig? Please don’t tarnish the spirit of our organization with your baseless protests. Just sign over your work to us for free. Let us make all the money. You return to your hole and write your next story.
Why do we let them do this?
Let me give you a recent example
This happened to me. A few weeks back, I got an email from a man I don’t know, offering to purchase the film rights to one of my novels. The contract he sent me, in effect, wanted the rights for free forever. He was not going to give me an advance. He was going to be pay me a royalty on receipts (if any) for ten years, on rights he wanted for perpetuity.
Note this: he wanted to sign on rights for perpetuity (which means my death plus seventy years), but was willing to pay royalty on receipts only for ten years.
I asked him what the budget of the movie was. He gave me a number. I asked him if the technicians and actors that will work on the movie are going to get paid. He said yes. I asked him why, then, can he not pay the writer? I told him that the contract was too exploitative and that I was not going to sign it.
His response? In his own words: You really need to get an understanding of how the movie business works before you send me such emails. Reading a few things on the internet and talking to a few people ain’t going to cut it. Don’t be a wise guy while negotiating a deal. It will only make you look more dumb…If you want to learn from me, ask politely…
Do you spot the pattern?
Did you spot the condescension? Do you see the similarity in tone between this message I got and the message that Vinita of TOI put up? People in the business have gotten so used to writers rolling over and signing whatever is put in front of them that when one of them actually dares to read a contract – and heaven forbid, question a clause – he is called dumb and wise in the same sentence.
But, but, but, I hear you say, I’m not a lawyer. I’m a writer. What do I know of clauses and rights and stuff? It’s not my job to know this. Is it?
It is. Sorry. If you’re a writer and you want to publish, it is your job to know the basics. Here is a quick primer.
Things every writer ought to know
- Repeat to yourself – until it sinks in – that your work has value. The fact that someone is offering you a contract to get it means that it has value. And by that I don’t just mean intangible value. I mean monetary value. Your work is worth money.
- When you write a story, you own the moral copyright. This means that you assert the moral authority to be known as the owner of your work. No one can take this away from you.
- Then you have publishing and distributing rights, which is what publishers and people like TOI want to get off you. Because a moral copyright doesn’t have any value unless you can publish the work somewhere, even if it’s on your blog.
- These rights typically have a term to them. And they cost money. Do not give away these rights for free. If you can help it, do not give them away forever. Remember? Your story has monetary value.
- Getting credit for your work is not compensation. It’s your moral right. Getting published is not compensation. Only compensation is compensation. If they’re making money, you need to get a share. As simple as that.
- If the other party is not open to negotiation, don’t sign the contract. Write your story. Publish it on your own. Keep your rights to yourself.
Your writing is your property
Imagine this: a person comes to you and asks you for the right to stay in your house for free forever. He says he will hang a nameplate outside the front door with your name on it, so the moral ownership of it still lies with you. He will kick you out of the house as soon as you sign the agreement. He assures you that you’re a winner, because you built a house, see? Now you can go out into the cold and build another one. ‘Call me as soon as you finish,’ he says, while slamming the front door shut in your face.
These are the terms. Will you sign those papers?
Your stories are your property. They’re as much your property as your house and other legal assets. If you won’t sign away use of your house to anyone without adequate compensation, why would you sign away use of your stories? And with such impunity that other people come to think of it as their right?
If you don’t value your work…
Someone else will, and they will steal it from right under your nose. They will do it legally, like TOI did in this instance, because let’s face it, at this stage, we’re so stupid that we’re literally begging to be robbed. No need to make the effort to come up with something illegal. Just slip in a contract, secure a signature, turn and walk away with a smirk. Easy as.
Just make a few promises and we grovel at their feet.
Speaking of promises…
- The promise of publication. This is usually enough for many writers to bend over backwards. But think about it. The average anthology of short stories sells perhaps 1000 copies in its lifetime, which means 1000 people have read your story. What if you’d published it on your blog? Would it not have garnered 1000 readers in all the years from now till your death? What if you’d written ten stories in a year and put them together into a Kindle bundle, and published it as a book? Would you not be able to find 1000 readers from now till your death?
- The promise of association. This is usually with a big brand, like TOI, and with big brand name authors, like the ones they paraded for this contest. Do you really think that the authors read every one of the stories that people sent in? They probably read the shortlisted ten stories each, if that. And do you think these authors care about what you write? Has even one of them bothered to respond about this issue? I don’t blame them. Why should they? Why did you ever think that they should?
- The promise of the prize itself. This is a legitimate promise, but is the prize big enough to persuade you to give up rights on your story forever for free? I don’t know about you, but if it’s my story, no prize would be big enough.
It has never been easier for writers to reach readers on their own. We have an array of platforms where our work can be read. Blogs, social media, self-publishing – and we still lick the ground on which these lawful thieves walk.
Because we’re insecure bozos, that’s why
Let’s face it. We’re insecure about our work. We don’t really believe that people ought to pay money to read what we write. We’re constantly on the lookout for validation from someone of authority (someone who is a brand) telling us that hey, you know what, you’re good! What are you doing in the crowd? Come on up to the big boys’ table!
We think that once someone anoints us in this manner, it will all become better. The insecurity will go away. Some magic wand will have touched us. Some fairy dust will have rubbed off. We will feel good about ourselves.
Only we don’t. Take it from a pro who has written and published more than twenty books. The insecurity doesn’t go away. I’m willing to bet that every one of the celebrity authors that participated in the Write India contest feels it too, every time they sit down to write.
So if you’re feeling insecure about your work, welcome to the club! It’s natural. Write through it, write with it, deal with it however you want, but when you’re finished, don’t let it convince you that your writing has no value. This is the crucial part. If you’re giving the rights of your work away for free, you’ve basically let your insecurity win. You’ve convinced yourself that your work is useless.
Hint: it’s not.
Why do I care about all of this?
I did not enter the TOI Write India campaign. None of the 30,000 stories they have are mine. I know only one of the associated celebrity authors (but not too well). I could have let the whole thing blow over quietly and nothing would have changed in my own little universe.
But I’ve seen first hand how many beginning authors are being fleeced with unconscionable contracts just because they don’t know better. There is an inherent power imbalance that comes in when a big brand offers a contract to an unknown writer. If the brand is ethical, they don’t grossly misuse that power. If the brand is unethical, well…
I hope this incident – and this post – has given you enough incentive to begin respecting your work. It’s quite simple: whenever you’re transferring publishing rights, demand payment. If they don’t pay, move on until you find someone who does. If you don’t find anyone, what have you lost? You still have all the rights to your story, don’t you? It’s still yours, isn’t it? At least you’ve not given it away to a moocher who will make money off it for the rest of your life.
That is my main hope, that all this will have awakened us into vigilance. And I figured someone from the establishment should stand up and call out the bullshit.
Questions / Comments?
I know this is a large topic, and I’ve tried to cover it in as much detail as I can, but if you have any questions about anything I said, or if you have comments to make on any aspect of this sorry business of author exploitation, shoot away in the comments. I will be listening in.
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