Social media was buzzing with more contract queries last week, after one magazine began issuing fiction writers with a new contract.
I haven’t seen the entire contract because I am not one of those writers on their preferred supplier list, but many of the queries were around a clause that appeared to request the transfer of all intellectual property rights.
Clearly, without seeing the whole contract, it would be inappropriate for me to give advice. And, anyway, I’m not a legal expert, so I’m not trained to give such advice. But I did think it would be useful to remind writers of potential basic steps they can consider when faced with a situation like this.
Never sign anything you don’t fully understand. Even if it’s only one clause that doesn’t make sense to you.
Ask for Clarification
Go through the contract, line by line, highlighting what you don’t understand. Then go back to the company issuing the contract. One would hope that they do know what those clauses mean! So get it from the horses mouth first.
Genuine mistakes are made with contracts. Don’t automatically assume that the publisher/magazine is out to get you! (Yes, ANY contract is about negotiating the best deal, but that’s not the same thing.) I’ve been sent a contract where two consecutive clauses contradicted each other. When I queried this it was quickly rectified to my satisfaction.
A contract should be a negotiation. Ideally, the first document you’re offered is a starting point. (Brexit, anyone?) So don’t be afraid of making enquiries about changes. Don’t DEMAND them. Ask if your suggestions can be accommodated, or if there is any room for movement. If yes, then that’s great. If no, only then is it up to you how to proceed.
Finally, if you’re a member of a professional organisation, such as the Society of Authors, the NUJ or the Writers Guild of Great Britain, then use any contract vetting service that’s available to you. As a member, they’re often free for you to use, so use them. It’s what you pay your membership for.
I mentioned at the start of this post that there were queries concerning the transfer of intellectual property rights. Just be aware that this can include copyright, as per the UK Government website: https://www.gov.uk/intellectual-property-an-overview
Once you’ve assigned copyright you no longer have any rights to re-use your own material. And this is something fiction writers should be aware of. After all, some of Hollywood’s most successful films, such as Minority Report and Brokeback Mountain all began life as short stories.