This post has been updated.
There’s another big-money writing competition in town: The Short Story Project’s My Best Story contest.
The Short Story Project (TSSP) offers customized lists of curated short stories for download, in text and audio form. Right now, the stories on the site are a mix of in-copyright and public domain works; TSSP also appears to be planning to allow writers to submit stories directly, with perks such as a “professional review” tied to the number of reads. Stories can be accessed for free; there are also subscription plans that ensure an ad-free reading experience.
So what about the competition? 20 writers can win prizes ranging from $125 (for 10th place) to $5,000 (for the grand prize winner). Included is SmartEdit software and publication on TSSP for the top five writers. Competition judges are not only named, but have genuine credentials (this is one of the more important ways of distinguishing a fake contest from a real one). Word limit is 2,500, entry fee is a not-unreasonable $17, and the deadline for submissions is September 30.
So far, so good. As always, though, the devil is in the fine print–in particular, the fine print regarding intellectual property rights. Though TSSP makes it all sound very simple–
–its Terms and Conditions tell a different story [UPDATE: the T&C have been amended. See below].
Merely by entering the competition, writers are granting sweeping publication and commercialization rights not just to TSSP, but to anyone associated with it who obtains a copy of the writer’s story “in connection with Sponsor’s business.”
It’s not uncommon for competitions to require writers to grant various rights upon submitting, as a kind of shortcut to ensure that the sponsor will have those rights already in hand when winners are chosen. But such a grant should be temporary, and should always be balanced by language ensuring that rights are released back to entrants if they don’t win.
TSSP’s T&C do not include any such language. Not only that, they extend the grant of rights to unidentified third parties working “on Sponsor’s behalf.” In other words, whether or not you win, TSSP and unknown people associated with it retain publishing rights to your entry in perpetuity, and can do pretty much anything they want with it without payment or even notice to you. Yes, the grant is non-exclusive, which means that you can publish elsewhere–but since entering this competition is in effect a grant of first rights to TSSP, you will only ever be able to sell your story as a reprint.
In addition, entrants must agree to a sweeping indemnification clause whose language suggests they will have no recourse for improper use of their stories (such as intellectual property theft):
Resolving claims might be difficult in any case–at least for US- and UK-based writers–given that the contest is governed by the laws of Israel, and any disputes must be resolved there. (As is increasingly common these days in T&Cs, the guidelines also bar class action lawsuits.)
Less than two weeks ago, I wrote about a different competition whose T&Cs also failed to release entrants from a grant of rights required on entry. This is a fairly common issue with competitions that include a grant of rights in their guidelines, and I think in many cases it’s just carelessness (or, sometimes, ignorance) on the part of the sponsor–a failure to consider consequences, rather than because the competition is greedy or shady. But–assuming the competition actually isn’t greedy or shady–there really is no excuse for it, given how easy it is to fix, simply by adding language terminating the grants of non-winners immediately upon announcement of competition results.
Yet another demonstration of why writers must pay careful attention to the fine print of competition guidelines, and make sure they understand what they may be giving up by entering.
UPDATE: TSSP is soliciting entries via Messenger, offering 50% discounts on the entry fee.
UPDATE 8/27/18: Last week, TSSP’s founder, Iftach Alony, offered to answer some questions from Writer Beware. His responses are below.
Iftach says that he will amend the License to Entry clause of TSSP’s contest guidelines to clarify that the grant of rights is digital only, and will add language releasing the rights of non-winners 6 months after the competition ends. He has assured me that both these changes will be retroactive for writers who’ve already entered the competition.
The 6-month lag time in releasing rights, presumably, will enable TSSP to publish deserving stories other than those chosen as winners. However, TSSP’s grant of rights is explicitly “free of charge”–so if you submit to this competition, be aware that you are consenting to possibly being published without payment.
In responding to my question about payment, Iftach points to the free perks TSSP’s writers receive (such as audio recordings and translations), as well as the exposure they’ll gain by appearing on TSSP, as “assets” that offset the lack of payment. However, those free perks are not available initially or to everyone. And I would remind authors that “writing for exposure” is only of value if you can confirm that there really is exposure.
I remain concerned about TSSP’s indemnification language. And I’m not satisfied by Iftach’s response to my question about why TSSP’s License to Entry clause extends authors’ grant of rights to unnamed third parties. He claims that this is “a common clause in…rights agreements.” That’s not my impression at all. (Hopefully someone knowledgeable will correct me if I’m wrong.)
I’ll keep an eye on TSSP’s competition guidelines and update this post when they’re amended.
WRITER BEWARE: In emails to me, and in a comment on my post, you’ve repeatedly stated that TSSP is asking writers to grant only digital rights. But the current language of your contest guidelines’ License to Entry clause does not limit the grant of rights to digital only; in fact the word “digital” doesn’t appear at all. Can you address this discrepancy?
IFTACH ALONY: TSSP, does not deal with any kind of printed literature, it’s one of the project essentials, encouraging “digital literature”. I guess that it was so obvious to us, that we didn’t pay enough attention. We will correct it, making it clear that the rights to the wining stories are only for the non-exclusive digital rights.
WB: Can you explain why you retain the rights of all writers who enter your contest? Why do you choose not to release those rights back to non-winners?
IA: Our intention is to publish all stories which we find suitable for our UGC platform. This can only be done if we have the writers permission/rights. TSSP has no interest in keeping the rights to non-winners, and we will correct the wording to make it clear that non-winners rights are released. I must admit that we were mostly thinking of how to enable writers to publish and expose their works, enabling TSSP to publish the stories.
WB: Might you be willing to add a clause to your competition guidelines releasing the rights of non-winners once the winners have been chosen?
IA: As mentioned in the previous answer – rights of non-winners will be released. We will keep, for a limited period of 6 months, the writers permission to publish his work on the TSSP UGC platform.
WB: Your License to Entry clause extends the grant of rights to “any person obtaining a copy of the [contest] Entry on Sponsor’s behalf.” Can you give me an idea of who those third parties might be, and why you feel it’s necessary for them to have a claim on entrants’ rights?
IA: I’m not a lawyer, and as I understand, this is a normal and acceptable clause which is part of any agreement TSSP made while purchasing the rights to publish a story, and as far as I understand, it is a common clause in most of the right agreements, especially while dealing with one story.
WB: In an email to me, you mentioned that fair payment for writers is one of TSSP’s goals. I wholeheartedly agree! However, the License to Entry clause explicitly states that contest entrants are granting rights “free of charge” in perpetuity. How does this square with your goal of fair payment?
IA: I think that you are missing a main point here, the resources which are invested in publishing a story on TSSP platform – translating to the different languages, recording by a professional narrator, adjusting to the platform technical requirements, creating the image, etc. etc. all those investments are also the writers assets, as he can use them for free!! To be more precise: a) TSSP gives the writer free access and use of the translation and recording. This is worth much more than the story rights, for a very acclaimed writer or a contest winner. b) Publishing the story on the TSSP platform is exposing the work to hundreds of thousands of readers! This gives the writer a unique opportunity to get acquainted by audiences that it would have otherwise been almost impossible to, not to mention the costs it would occur . We strongly think that for a writer, this overall exposure, audio and translation are assets which can be easily measured.
You have partly quoted what I wrote to you – I mentioned that TSSP is in the midst of developing an algorithm that will enable the writer to be part of TSSP revenues.
Generally stating, I don’t understand your point – as a writer, I think that having exposure in TSSP ONE story out of a collection, in whatever terms, can be deemed only as a benefit.
WB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
IA: The Short Story Project’s mission is firstly to encourage reading and breaking the language barrier. As I am passionate for short stories, I decided to be active in this, genre. One of TSSP missions is to encourage short literature, making it vibrant and essential. I believe that there is no art as literature, and specifically short story literature, to discover human conditions.
If any further clarifications are needed, do not hesitate approaching me.
The Short Story Project
UPDATE 9/3/18: As promised, TSSP has amended its Terms & Conditions. Here’s the new License to Entry clause:
The grant of rights has been limited to contest winners, and also to publication, reproduction, etc. by “digital means only” (which, it has to be noted, would not rule out print, contrary to what’s claimed the comment below from a TSSP staffer).
This is definitely an improvement. However, two of the issues I discuss above have not been addressed: the grant of rights is still extended to “any person obtaining a copy of the Entry on Sponsor’s behalf”, and the language of indemnification clause, which potentially deprives authors of recourse in the event of intellectual property theft, has not been changed. For me, that’s still enough to make this contest a “caution.”