Many bloggers dream about getting a recurring guest blogging position. Whether paid or unpaid, many bloggers toil in relative obscurity for years before being offered a chance to write for a large site.
However, the excitement of being offered a new writing position often causes bloggers, as well as other writers, to make serious mistakes. When they receive their first contract, they either do not read the document carefully or, in a desperate bid to please their new employers, sign the contract with little regard to the rights that they surrender.
However, when you sign your name to a contract, you are bound to it and signing a bad contract can have long-term consequences that can both limit the rights to your own work and the scope of your future projects.
No matter how good of a deal the contract seems to be, it is worth taking a moment to read through it and watch out for the rights that you may be giving away.
Words to Watch Out For
When you sign a contract to write or have your content used on another site, you are inevitably going to give up some rights. In order to merely display the work, the site needs a wide swath of rights including the right to display, publish and perform the work, as well as rights to create derivative works, in case they have to edit the work.
However, many often grab more rights than are necessary. Though few sites will attempt to have you sign over full copyright in the work, those contracts are difficult to write and often don’t stand up well in court, they can ask you to sign over so many rights that you effectively have no control over your own writing.
There are some words that you should be wary of if you see them in a contract and, if you do see them, you should think carefully before signing.
- Exclusive: Many companies or sites will require that you give them an exclusive license to the content. This will prohibit you from posting the work on any other site, including your own, or using any derivatives of it. This right is relatively common given that search engines dislike duplicate content and is not wholly dangerous, but can be problematic when combined with the rights below.
- Sub-licensable/Transferable: Sub-licensable means that the recipient can license out the rights they obtain to third parties, transferable means that they can pass them on wholesale. Both mean that your work can be sold or given to other sites without your approval or compensation.
- Perpetual/Irrevocable: Most contracts have a means of termination, however, if the rights granted are perpetual or irrevocable, they can not be returned to the author and the person purchasing the rights has them indefinitely, even if the writer quits.
- Moral Rights (Outside US): If you are from outside the U.S. or are working with a company from another country, a mention of surrendering moral rights or the right to enforce them is dangerous. Moral rights are, among other things, the rights of the author to be attributed for their work and are independent of copyright law. Sacrificing them means that you do not have to be credited for your work.
- Non-Compete Clause: Though not a copyright issue directly, a non-compete clause can restrict you from writing about similar topics on another site, including your own. A strongly-worded clause may even force you to close down an existing site.
It is important to note that, generally, these types of contracts are written to protect the purchaser against any and all foreseeable situations that could arise from their use of the work. The mere fact that there is a request for rights in the contract does not indicate that they intend to flex those rights.
However, if you sign those rights over to them, you have no ability to object if they do decide to take advantage of them later.
It is important to remember that there is nothing permanent about a contract until you sign it. If you receive a contract you are not comfortable with, you are free to alter it and negotiate the terms of it. Only when both parties sign it does it become final.
If you see any of the elements above and are not prepared to sign over those rights, consider some of the following alternatives as compromises.
- Instead of a simply offering blanket exclusivity, offer a period of exclusivity. Given the nature of most work on the Web, the value will likely be diminished after a few weeks and/or months. This also gives the search engines plenty of time to determine which site is the “original”.
- Rather than simply allowing the work to be sub-licensed, request approval of all parties that wish to license it to ensure that your work is not connected with a party that could tarnish your reputation.
- Make sure that there is a valid means of terminating the contract and reclaiming a reasonable amount of rights. Though a proper contract will likely give them the right to continue to use the work long after the contract has ended, make sure you reserve some rights in your own content.
- You can likely surrender most of your moral rights without much headache, but make sure that attribution rights are spelled out in detail.
- A non-compete clause in and of itself is not that outrageous, but work to ensure that the clause terminates when the contract does, that all existing sites and works are excluded and that the definition of what is “competing” is clearly spelled out.
Be Careful of What You Don’t Sign
The only contract that can be more dangerous than the one you do sign is the one you don’t. As more and more bloggers and writers work for sites without first signing a contract, they often find themselves walking into very risky situations.
The problem is that, in the U.S., such paid writing deals are almost never considered works for hire. This means that, without a contract, it is hard for either party to know what rights in the work they do or do not have. This can make for very heated disputes both in and out of the courtroom.
If you are entering a situation where you are writing for another site, paid or unpaid, without a contract, be sure to save all correspondence between you and the person you are writing for. Barring a formal contract, the rights assigned are typically based upon whatever was informally agreed to. If something isn’t discussed, it usually defaults to whatever the industry standard is, thus creating an implied license.
Unfortunately, that can vary wildly from court to court and case to case.
However, you are much better off with a bad contract that claims too many rights than no contract at all. If possible, always get the terms in writing.
The simple fact is that no one likes dealing with contracts. They are long, boring and intimidating. Even people such as myself, who read legal documents almost every day, are loathe to deal with them.
However, they are a necessary part of any professional writing job and serve to protect both the writer and the contractor. Since a good contract needs only be read and signed once and can lead to months or years of happy employment, it is worth taking a few minutes to do so.
After all, a good read-through of a contract can save you months or even years of headaches down the road.