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 then ripping them off the minute they start trying to take advantage of it? NOT GOOD.

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

#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. Go read them: I’ll wait. I’m not going to reproduce them here: they give me the pip.

Clause 5 is where the trouble starts. Clause 5 essentially says: “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. [But you’re so desperate, you won’t care, will you?] #lol #loser”

Clause 5 by itself ought to be enough to make you walk away, it’s so slimy. But then comes clause 6, in which you assign to Amtrak the irrevocable 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 give 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? 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*. But give away world rights to something for a single lousy 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 to keep world rights.

Better pay the ticket price yourself and keep the rights to your work in your own pocket than swap those rights for the chance at a single train ride, sleeper or not. (And something else to note here. There is no declaration of who owns the rights to the material you produce on this train trip. There is no way to tell what paperwork you’re going to be required to sign if you actually win. Oh, and did I mention the background checks they want to conduct on you first, to make sure you’re not some kind of crypto-crook who’s going to embarrass them? Clause 9.)

…Now, I hear they’re fixing clause 6 in some way or other (doubtless already having heard the first wave of complaints). That’s all well and good. But I haven’t heard a word about clause 5, which stinks to just as high a heaven.  And they tried to get away with clause 6 as it was. That says way too much about their concept of good faith as it applies to writing, and writers.

It’s not worth it. This thing is poison. So please, I beg of you, step away from the very large diesel-powered vehicle. I too am “passionate about train travel and writing”… way more than most people might guess on the first count. But this is not the way to go about it. If they’re willing to try to take this much off you before you even win, what happens when you actually get on board?

*I leaned my forehead against the window right there on Fifth Avenue in the twilight and moaned like a broken thing. Ah God those emeralds. They didn’t have a single inclusion, not one of them. (sigh) …Never mind.

Writing on the train on one’s own nickel: the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise, 2004

(CC train image at the top from Jack Snell on Flickr)

*kicks things*

Ah well, guess I’ll just keep having to pay for tickets.

I hope somebody yells at them and makes them realize this is not okay.  I like to think that they are just looking for permission to promote themselves with a “Look what these guys did!” kind of thing, but are going about it in a classic “intellectual property how do” kind of way.

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