The Amtrak Residency: Why I Think This Is A Terrible Idea For A Writer

Our Tumblr addiction brings us this gem about writing. And trains. And….

trainsby Diane Duane

I’ve felt sorry for Amtrak for a long time. Economic pressures and the unique problems of any rail system based inside the US (where automobile travel has too long been the be-all and end-all) have turned it into a faint shadow of the formerly great passenger and freight rail lines that helped define the 19th and early 20th-century history of the US.

But I’m finished feeling sorry for it as of now. It’s no crime to have fallen on hard times. But offering people what seems to be something wonderful and to then to have it look like they might be taking advantage of those who take up the offer?Not good.

On the face of it, it sounds like a lovely idea.

#AmtrakResidency was designed to allow creative professionals who are passionate about train travel and writing to work on their craft in an inspiring environment. Round-trip train travel will be provided on an Amtrak long-distance route. Each resident will be given a private sleeper car, equipped with a desk, a bed and a window to watch the American countryside roll by for inspiration. Routes will be determined based on availability.

Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis and reviewed by a panel. Up to 24 writers will be selected for the program starting March 17, 2014 through March 31, 2015.  A passion for writing and an aspiration to travel with Amtrak for inspiration are the sole criteria for selection. Both emerging and established writers will be considered.

But then you read the terms and conditions, and the alarm bells go off big time.

Clause 5 is where the trouble starts. From the cautious writer’s point of view, clause 5 can be read as meaning: “When you turn in your application, gee, anything can happen to your original writing. Who knows? We have a billion PR people working for us whose work yours might be [airquotes] confused with [/airquotes]. By signing this you agree that should this happen, you have no recourse, and we never have to credit you or pay you one thin dime.”

Clause 5 by itself ought to be enough to make you walk away. But then comes clause 6, in which you assign to Amtrak theirrevocable world rights to all the data in your application including your writing, forever and a day. And the day after that.

I learned the lesson long ago both from other freelance writers and at my agent’s knee, and the lesson is as important now as it ever was — in this day of the effortless digital ripoff, perhaps way more so. The lesson is this: Never sell anyone world rights to any of your writing.  Ever. Ever. Because who knows if that one piece of writing is the one that would have made you famous worldwide and rich beyond the dreams of avarice? Or  more to the point, what if they later do something with your writing that is absolutely opposite to your intentions and which you find harmful or offensive? You’d have no recourse there either. I wouldn’t sell anyone world rights to a story for a million dollars and that necklace of flawless cabochon emeralds I saw in the window at Harry Winston that one time. And sell away world rights to something for the price of a single train ticket? I don’t think so. They could plate the inside of that sleeper with platinum and lay on catering from Dallmayr and I still wouldn’t do it if it meant they got irrevocable world rights.

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