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July 19, 2016

WriteIndia Writing Contest: When a Contest Sponsor Changes The Rules

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

NOTE: This post has been updated.

I harp a lot here on how important it is to read the fine print--in your publishing contract, on websites that host user content, in literary contests. Sure, it's tedious, especially if couched in lengthy legalese--but skipping this step can result in unpleasant surprises.

What happens, though, if the contest sponsor changes its guidelines while the contest is still in progress?

Last year, the Times of India--one of the world's largest English-language newspapers--launched the WriteIndia contest. Each month for eleven months, a well-known Indian writer provided a passage or a prompt for contest entrants to develop into a short story. Eleven winners were awarded a Kindle, attendance at an exclusive writing camp, and publication in a compilation of winners' stories published by TOI's publishing imprint, Times Group Books.

Major newspaper, eminent writers, publication--what's not to like? Thousands of writers entered the contest. The final slate of winners was announced July 15 on Twitter, prompting this question from one of the non-winning entrants:
To which the response was:
Wait, what? shocked writers demanded. How could that be?

When I put this post online earlier today, here's how the next few paragraphs read.
Well, because of the fine print of WriteIndia's Terms & Conditions:
7. OTHER TERMS AND CONDITIONS:

a. Participant acknowledge and agrees that [Times Internet Limited] shall have irrevocable, worldwide, exclusive right to publish and commercially exploit the story/content submitted with TIL, through any medium and channel for the period of two years from the date of completion of campaign. After two years exclusivity period, TIL shall have non- exclusive right to publish and commercially exploit the story, worldwide and in perpetuity. TIL shall have the right to adapt, edit or modify the story as solely determined by TIL. TIL shall not be required to take any further approval or to notify the participant or to pay any additional consideration for the grant of aforesaid rights.
Simply by entering the contest, writers granted TOI perpetual rights to their stories, whether or not they won--and not just nonexclusively, but on an exclusive basis for a full two years. TOI doesn't have to pay writers whose work they use, or even notify them.

I've rarely seen such a greedy rights grab in contest guidelines. If anyone had contacted me to ask about this contest, I would have advised them not to enter. On the other hand, TOI didn't attempt to hide or obfuscate the rights grab--it was right there in black and white for anyone to read. Problem is, lots of writers apparently didn't read it. So now, basically, they're stuck.
In fact, the above is not quite correct, as I discovered late this afternoon when I checked into what's claimed in the first comment on this post. When most writers entered the WriteIndia contest, the T&C were different from what they are today. Here's a screenshot from April 19 of this year, courtesy of the Internet Archive.


As you can see, the rights grab is still there (the last sentence in the shot), but in vague language that's much easier to miss or misinterpret, especially since there's no mention of irrevocability, perpetuity, or exclusivity. As the contest was coming to an end, TOI must have decided it needed something more precise, so it completely re-wrote the T&C--which it was within its rights to do because of this paragraph:
The Times of India reserves the right at any time without prior notice to add, alter, modify, all or any of these terms and conditions or replace, wholly or in part, this Offer by any other Offer, whether similar to this Offer or not or to withdraw it altogether.
It's not unusual to find such language in contest guidelines, but it's rare for a contest sponsor to make such wholesale changes while the contest is in progress. While writers who ignore or miss plain language in a contest T&C have only themselves to blame, and the mention of "commercialisation" in TOI's original T&C should have been a red flag, it seems to me that WriteIndia entrants were substantially misled by rights language that TOI's own alterations of its T&C acknowledge weren't nearly clear or comprehensive enough, and didn't adequately convey its intentions for the entries. In my opinion, this is pretty shameful.

TOI has attempted to allay one concern--that the stories might be published without writers' names:


Sounds good, but I have to point out that since neither the original nor the revised T&Cs mention the issue of moral rights at all, writers have no recourse if this pledge isn't honored.

In response to the flap, TOI's Director, Vinita Nawra Nangia, is now saying that "anyone who does not agree to the said terms and conditions, is free to withdraw from the campaign." (Contact info: writeindia@timesinternet.in.) TOI should go farther. It should formally relinquish any and all rights to any and all non-winning entries.

12 comments :

juniorpartner said...

Actually, the terms were changed to incorporate the rights grab after about 90% of the contest was done, and a majority of the submissions were in. The original terms, available online (archived online) gave TOI the right to unilaterally change terms and not notify contestants.

Victoria Strauss said...

juniorpartner, thanks for the heads-up. I've confirmed that the T&C were indeed different when most writers entered; the rights grab was there, but it was much vaguer and much easier to misinterpret. I've corrected my post to reflect this.

Jennifer R. Povey said...

So, now we can't even assume we're safe if we DO read the TOC.

I'd note that as a pattern, major newspaper involvement and rights grabs often go hand in hand. I barely even look at contests sponsored by a newspaper. It's unfortunate, but they all seem to do this.

Cindy said...

Wow! Those terms are ridiculous. Wonder if anyone will challenge them.

Eva Polites said...

A few years ago I refused to give my son permission to enter an online science fair contest. Entering gave the sponsor the right to use the projects/discoveries in any way they saw fit and in any format. My son was very angry with me, but I held firm, and showed him the troubling language. He was shocked at the unethical rights grab and his anger quickly turned on the sponsor. Intellectual property is under attack from all fronts and we must be vigilant. Read the fine print!!!!!

Anonymous said...

"Major newspaper, eminent writers, publication--what's not to like? " Ha, ha! Let me count the ways! Do you want to write or simply become part of a business and phony writing cabal?

Iola said...

https://www.inkshares.com/publishing_terms

This contest seems to include the same exclusive rights grab, only for ten years instead of two. Or am I missing something?

Victoria Strauss said...

Iola,

Inkshares is a publishing platform, not a contest, and what you've linked to is its publishing contract, to which writers must agree in order to be published by Inkshares. An exclusive grant of rights is standard for a publishing contract. I have some problems with some of the terms of the contract, but it's a different animal from the contest guidelines discussed in my post.

Iola Goulton said...

Thanks for the confirmation, Victoria.

A.G. Claymore said...

They also claim the rights to change or edit your work at their sole discretion. I find that even more troubling. Losing the rights to a short story that I wrote for a newspaper contest is one thing but waking up to find it published with changes that help forward the editor's political leanings is quite another.
They reserve the right to change your message and publish it under your name. That alone would prevent me from submitting.

Anonymous said...

I know this is a different contest. http://fictionwar.com/
But is this one problematic?

Ruby said...

I'm so glad that my story didnt win. More than that, I'm happy that I had written just a demonstration! I have had a rehearsal maybe.

 
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