Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Another Contest Alert: FieldReport True Life Stories

This week I got a question about a contest advertised by FieldReport, "a community of readers and writers devoted to sharing — and rewarding — great true-life stories." The contest has been widely advertised on blogs, jobs boards, and writing forums. Here's a sample announcement:

FieldReport Award for True-Life Stories

$40,000 in total prizes awarded July 1

FieldReport is a new web site that awards huge cash prizes for the best in personal writing. This call for submissions is for FieldReport’s pre-launch beta period. The reading period for the contest is May 1, 2008 through June 30, 2008, but you should submit by mid June to have the best chance of winning. Prizes are awarded July 1, 2008. To enter, go to www.fieldreport.com and type in the password “truelife” (the word, not the quotes). To submit, each participant must create an account and rank other pieces on the site. All submissions must be true (nonfiction) stories that actually happened to the author.

First prize: $20,000 for the top-rated story of true-life experience, as determined by quality rankings of the FieldReport community of reviewers.

Category prizes: $1,000 for the top-rated story in each of 17 story categories and $2,000 for the winning story in two categories: Brush With Fame, and Travel + Nature.


Here's a more detailed description of contest categories and procedures.

In my world, if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. So I decided to do a bit of checking. What follows is long and technical, so I'll give you the short version up front: contest winners must surrender copyright, and merely by submitting to FieldReport, you grant a sweeping menu of rights which may encumber not just the submitted work, but future work derived from or related to it.

The FieldReport website is set up so that it looks as if it's only accessible via password. If you've seen the contest announcement, you know what the password is--but the password is really just a marketing gimmick, because if you Google FieldReport, you can easily access most pages of the site, password-free. That includes the official contest rules. These reveal the following:

- The entry period is not really the entry period. Although Clause 3 states that the official contest period extends from noon on March 31 to noon on July 1 (Pacific time), "Entries must be received by June 15 at 12:00 noon (the 'Submission Deadline') to be guaranteed the reviews and scoring required to be eligible for prizes." (Like some other content sites, FieldReport has a proprietary ranking system that determines the top stories based on reviews). Entries received after that may be eligible for review and scoring, but only at FieldReport's discretion.

To be fair, this is stated, more or less, in many of the contest announcements I've seen. But many of those announcements were posted in early June, and the non-deadline deadline is something that could easily be overlooked. So why not just end the entry period June 15, instead of letting it extend an additional 15 days that probably don't count? My guess: increased membership. FieldReport wants as many members as it can get, and the contest, with its huge prizes, is a terrific enticement.

- The prizes may not be the prizes. According to Clause 4a, prize money will be paid "in the form of a credit to the winner's account," and "Amounts in accounts may be paid out according to the Sponsor's Terms of Use." (Note the use of the word "may.") Turning to the Terms of Use, we find...no information whatever on how the money is paid out. (I couldn't find anything on the FieldReport website that explained where the money is coming from, either. Investors? A stake put up by the founders? It would be nice to know.) Prizes not claimed within 15 days are forfeited. And Clause 4b includes a common contest "gotcha": for any announced prize, FieldReport can substitute "a prize of equal or greater value."

- You win, you lose...copyright, that is. Clause 11 explains that prizewinners may be required to execute an affidavit attesting to their eligibility and their acceptance of of the contest rules. No biggie, right? However, if the prize is $1,000 or more, the affidavit must include "an assignment of all rights in the winning FieldReport to Sponsor." That's right: winners must surrender their copyrights.

And there's more.

Not just contestants, but anyone submitting content to FieldReport must agree to be bound by FieldReport's Submission Agreement--a document replete with author-unfriendly terms, many of which could easily be missed by an impatient writer skimming the agreement prior to submitting.

- The grant of rights is sweeping--and I do mean sweeping. Submitters do retain their copyrights--only contest winners are required to give that up. However, the license you grant to FieldReport when you submit content is extremely broad, and includes not only the range of rights necessary to enable FieldReport to display your content on its website, but also the right to use the submitted content "in any manner and form, including electronic and book form, on the Site or in other media, whether now or hereafter created; to use the Content for internal business purposes; to reproduce and distribute the Content for marketing and publicity purposes, and to sublicense the Content to third parties for any reason." The license is perpetual and irrevocable--and though it appears to apply to all submitted material, "FieldReport shall have no obligation to publish, use or retain any Content you submit or to return any such Content to you." Merely by submitting, you are granting these rights, whether or not your content is ever published.

FieldReport does pay for any rights it licenses or exploits. If it publishes a book "or other publication" that includes your content, you get 15% of net revenues. If it licenses your content to third parties, you get 75% of net revenues. For compilations, there's a complicated pro-rata system.

- FieldReport wants a cut of other income generated by your content. The license in Clause 1 is nonexclusive, which means you could sell your content elsewhere. If you do, however, you will have to give FieldReport a cut. According to Clause 4, you will owe a "commission" of 25% if you sell your article or "or otherwise exploit the Content in any manner" (by incorporating it into a memoir, perhaps?).

- Not just the submitted article, but other works may be encumbered by the terms of the submission agreement. According to Clause 5, if your article generates income (including prizes and licensing fees) in excess of $2,000 during the 18 months following its publication on FieldReport, you will be bound by the terms of the submission agreement for "aNY modified or derivative version of the CONTENT" (FieldReport's caps). "Modified or derivative" isn't defined. But what if, as noted above, you wrote a memoir that incorporated a version of the true life story you submitted to FieldReport? Would the memoir be bound by the submission agreement--i.e., would FieldReport have claim to most of the rights? What if you wrote a novel that incorporated a fictionalized version of the story? Would FieldReport own that?

- Contest participation is required. According to Clause 8, anything you submit to FieldReport can be entered in a FieldReport contest, at FieldReport's discretion. This means you may win prizes. But if you do, you will have to give up copyright--and remember that $2,000 income threshold that triggers additional rights claims. (I could find no provision in either the submission agreement or the contest rules to allow a prizewinner to decline the prize.)

- Articles published on FieldReport are there forever. The only way you can remove submitted content from FieldReport is to ask FieldReport's permission--"AND FIELDREPORT DOES NOT HAVE TO GRANT THIS PERMISSION." Interesting that they put it in caps.

So simply by submitting an article to FieldReport, you grant FieldReport a nonexclusive license to use that article in any way it chooses, including selling the article to others--and possibly grant it the very same license for future work based on or incorporating the article. You'll also owe it 25% of any re-sale of the article, and you can never remove your article from the site.

How do those big-money prizes sound now?

Who's behind FieldReport? Here's the team. As often seems to be the case with content sites, which live or die on the backs of writers, most of these folks come from non-writing-related backgrounds--including the music industry, which could explain the draconian rights provisions.

Once again, writers--ALWAYS READ THE FINE PRINT!

8 comments:

How Publishing Really Works said...

Thanks for this, Victoria. Those conditions are... extraordinary. Even after all these years watching things like this unfold, I can't imagine how the rules for this one were arrived at.

Jane

BuffySquirrel said...

I was wondering where all that money would come from, too.

FieldReport said...

Hi Victoria,

I will admit that FieldReport was asking for a lot of trust in its contributors during our beta period, so your doubts about us back in June were probably understandable—if it had been me, I might have had some of the same concerns. But FieldReport has proved itself in a number of ways since then, and I think your post is doing many writers a disservice right now.

Just recently, FieldReport sent out $40,000 in prize money (in cash) to the winners of our beta contest. This included $22,000 to a mail carrier in Portland who wrote the highest-rated FieldReport on the site plus a second story that won in its category. We also gave category awards to professional writers like best-selling novelist Laura Fraser, anthology editor and essayist Shari MacDonald Strong, and New York Times “Habitat” columnist Stephen P. Williams. We were proud of the outcome of our test, as it showed that our community is taking our ranking system seriously and the site is working well as an “engine” for recognizing great writing talent—independent of popularity or writing industry contacts.

Our beta test was such as success that we recently announced the FieldReport Prize for Experiential Writing, to be given out on December 1, 2008—which at $250,000, is the largest prize we know of for a single piece of writing in the world. We’ve also announced a $25,000 teen scholarship to be given out on the same date. We would hate for you and your readers to miss out on the potential of this because they didn’t understand what we are about.

To help you to understand FieldReport, and to go straight to the root of many of your concerns, I’d like to address your general comment that FieldReport just “sounds too good to be true.” I will admit that if you’re used to writing contests with $300 grand prizes and $10 “reading” fees, FieldReport definitely sounds too good to be true.

The reason FieldReport can be true is that our model is a complete departure from that of traditional writing contests. Our goal is to create a new entertainment medium on the web that will excite serious readers (of which there are millions out there) as much as YouTube excites video hounds. The last I read, there were over twelve million active bloggers—and is there any reliable way for you and me to find the best of what they’re writing? Not really.

With its high profile prizes and the reliability of its ranking system, FieldReport has the potential to become something like an American Idol of written content on the web, and the first place people go to access content a little deeper than the standard web fare. This is an idea that our investors are fired up about, and they’ve put their money where their mouths are. We love the idea that great new writers will be able to rise into the public eye in just weeks through FieldReport, through a proven system that rewards true quality, without years of struggling to get past the traditional gatekeepers of the publishing industry.

Another thing we are striving to create is a truly open publishing marketplace for the written word where old world literary connections are not a requirement of success. During our beta contest, we were playing close to the vest on this, so when you looked at our beta submission agreement expecting to find something appropriate to a simple contest, I can see why you were surprised. If you “readjust your spectacles” to see it as a publishing agreement, I think you’ll understand it better.

Incidentally, now that we have launched to the public, our agreement has been updated based on focus groups we conducted during our beta period, and several comments such as yours. FieldReport no longer takes copyright to any work submitted, and the exclusivity period for the license you grant on submission extends only for 18 months, unless you make more than $2,500 during that time on the piece you submitted. We are giving all of our beta authors the courtesy of allowing them to choose either our original agreement or the revised one.

I want to state clearly that there are choices to make when you submit to FieldReport, and it may not be the best place for everything you write. But these are rational choices that every author should make based on many factors, including the publicity value inherent in our system, potential prizes and profits to be gained, and other options in the market for selling personal essays (sadly limited today, to be frank). To characterize us as a scam does a real disservice to the aspirations of the community we both serve.

I hope after visiting our new site and coming to understand more about us, you’ll become a supporter of what we’re trying to do for writers, and for the publishing marketplace in general. If you’d like any further information, or verification of our July 1 prizes, feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to help.

Best regards,
Will Petty, CEO
FieldReport

Rachel said...

Thanks for posting this. As a writer, this set off all my alarms. Even with the revised TOS--where is this money coming from? And I'm totally leery of the proprietary, "patent-pending" ranking system. Scary stuff.

Victoria Strauss said...

FieldReport has changed its Terms of Use to address some of the concerns I've highlighted in this post. I've discussed these changes in a followup blog post (see the comments for even more changes).

Sandra Tallaferro Fuenterosa said...

Greetings, Victoria,

Your statements about Field Report may unfortunately be true.
I very much enjoyed submitting my writing to the site and had e articles printed, and had just submitted a fourth, when the site was closed down, to my dismay. Mr. Petty, the president, had a letter explaining that there had been tremendous breakdown difficulties due to the number of submissions competing for the extraordinary prize, He said the prizes would be awarded once the site was up and running again.
Today when I checked Field Report site out, it and his open letter were both inaccessible. This seems to confirm your suspicions, unless it comes back, and further developments prove you wrong. I have my fingers crossed that you are.
Best,
Sandra

FieldReport said...

Sandra,

You must have caught us in an "administrative moment." If you go back to the site you should find the page there.

We are expecting to get FieldReport back up for general use before the end of the week, though it will still be some time before we can announce dates for the resumption of our contests.

Best,

Will

Anonymous said...

I won a $1000 in October as a bronze prize winner.I guess sometimes when things seem too good to be true, they are actually
TRUE. :-)