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August 21, 2018

Contest Caution: The Short Story Project's My Best Story Competition


Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

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.

Thank You,

Iftach Alony
Founder,
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."

24 comments :

Jeanne Felfe said...

This is so wrong. When I submit to a contest and win, I expect the rights to revert back to me at some point. If I don't win, I expect the rights to remain mine.

Allen F said...

@ Jeanne

Which is why it's a good idea 'not' to enter contests, most are cons.

Read any contracts carefully and abort at the first sign of a copyright/rights grab.

Think of the 'contest' as someone fishing for people too dumb to realize what they're really up to. Hear's hoping you and others don't swallow one of these 'hook, line, and sinker' ... ;-)

iftach aloni said...

Jeanne, I strongly suggest that you carefully read the terms and conditions: a) rights remains yours! TSSP, although it pays the winners thousands of dollars, gets only NON-EXCLUSIVE DIGITAL rights. b) I think it is more than fair, taking into consideration that a story rights of a well known writer can be purchased (non-exclusive digital rights) for couple of hundreds. Best, Iftach.

Sage said...

Iftach, that doesn't match up with the contest terms and conditions, which clearly state that anybody participating (whether they win or not) are granting the contest runners license to use the entry in any manner they choose.
"By participating in the Contest, Participant hereby grant, free of charge, Sponsor and any person obtaining a copy of the Entry on Sponsor’s behalf, a non -exclusive worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty free license to use, copy, modify, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, merge, display, and publish or commercialize in any manner whatsoever the Entry in connection with Sponsor’s business."

Victoria Strauss said...

There's nothing in the License to Entry clause, which I've quoted above (and which, at this writing, remains unchanged on TSSP's website), to indicate that the grant of rights is limited to digital only. As it currently reads, it's a license granting publishing (and other) rights in any format.

Even if that were not the case, my main concern would be unchanged: that TSSP doesn't terminate the grant for non-winners. Of course you need a grant of rights from the contest winners you plan to publish; but why do you need to retain those rights for all the writers who enter your contest and don't win?

I do note that the grant of rights is non-exclusive. However, as I discuss, the fact that TSSP holds even non-exclusive rights to entrants' stories precludes them from ever selling first rights to other publishers. They can sell their stories only as non-exclusive reprints. Reprints are a limited market that pays much less.

Iftach has agreed to answer some interview questions; I'll be posting them as an update on this post.

Arthur Powers said...

Iftach, I'm sure you are acting in good faith However, I'm a lawyer and Victoria's reading of the license and indemnity clauses is correct. Please change those to reflect your intent as stated above

Arthur Powers said...

Most notably, the license provision does not limit you to digital publication

Michael Capobianco said...

Thanks for the interview, Iftach. I'm not convinced that exposure is as valuable as you seem to believe, but as long as everything is spelled out clearly on your website and in the contract, it's up to the individual author to decide if they want to risk it. A clarification -- if the story is a non-winner but published on the contest website, do all rights go back to the author after 6 months? And a last comment -- "perpetual" is a word that sets off alarm bells; better to have a defined time limit even if it's a long one. I look forward to seeing the revised contract when it's finished.

Michael Capobianco
SFWA Contracts Committee

Unknown said...

You commented. We listened. We've updated our "My Best Story" Terms and Conditions. This applies to previous submissions as well as new submissions.
***

At The Short Story project, we're here to help and enable the writer community. When you speak, we listen.

We thought our Terms and Conditions were fair. We were wrong, you were right. That's why we were quick to update them ASAP and to emphasize the following:

* Any rights mentioned, refer to digital media ONLY, and do not refer to printed books and the like.

* Unless you are among the 20 winners, YOU OWN THE FULL RIGHTS TO YOUR STORIES
* The 20 winners own the FULL RIGHTS to their stories, EXCEPT for derivates that we pay to produce.
***
https://www.shortstoryproject.com/contest/terms.html


Matan

Victoria Strauss said...

Matan,

Thanks for your comment. I've noted the change to the License to Entry clause, and will post it soon--but first, I have a question about this:

"The 20 winners own the FULL RIGHTS to their stories, EXCEPT for derivates that we pay to produce."

This wording makes no sense to me (and not just because--unless they surrender copyright--writers always own all their rights, regardless of how they license them to a publisher). By saying "except", you suggest that writers must grant or even surrender additional, unspecified rights for the derivative versions of their stories (audio books, translations) that TSSP produces. But your new License to Entry clause only requires writers to grant the same non-exclusive digital rights for the derivatives that they are granting for all the other uses mentioned in the clause. If that's not the case, what rights do you mean? And shouldn't this be reflected in the License to Entry clause?

I'm sure you think I'm being unduly pedantic about these points of language--but there are a lot of writers out there who can attest to the serious problems that can arise from vague or contradictory contract language. Good intentions aside, the contract is the bottom line of the author-publisher relationship. It needs to be as clear and precise as possible.

Anonymous said...

In the license to publish section, I notice the words "derivative work" has also been slipped in. Again, with no obligation of notice or pay. In some ways this gets back to the ongoing debate as to whether fanfiction is legal or not. While I'm sure the contest creators wish authors to be as creative as possible, I'm not sure why they'd feel the need at this point to already be thinking about derivative works.

Victoria Strauss said...

The derivative works language was in the original License to Entry. What they mean by "derivative works" appears to be this: for writers who reach certain benchmarks, TSSP produces audio versions and translations of their stories. Per the License to Entry, these derivatives appear to be covered by the same non-exclusive grant that writers are agreeing to for all other uses of their work--but Matan's language in her comment suggests that there's some different level of rights grant for the derivatives.

I very much suspect that this is just careless phrasing, or maybe there is a language issue, if Matan is not a native English speaker. On the other hand, based on what I've seen so far, and especially on my communications with TSSP staff, I also very much suspect that they don't have a good understanding of their own rights language.

I'm still waiting on a response to my question to Matan.

Anonymous said...

In thinking about my observance after I posted it I remembered 'derivative works' also covers the concept of 'reactionary literature'. Examples are Joe Hadleman's Forever War being a fictional reaction to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers book. Likewise, many medieval fantasies are often considered to be derivative works of Tolkein, because his world is so thorough and vivid it's hard to do a complete breakaway. Reactionary works have been going on a long time, and for the most part respect copyright law. In this light I guess I can see the need for a blanket term such as 'derivative works' might be preferable. Many authors take existing ideas and say, "This is what I would have done with it."
It's just a shame we live in a world where our publishing contracts and disclaimers threaten to be longer than the stories themselves.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous 9/01,

In the context of a publishing contract or agreement, "derivative rights" has a very specific meaning, covering works (such as translations, films, prequels and sequels, enhanced ebooks) arising from or based directly on the work covered by the contract. Just writing a book in the same genre (such as medieval fantasy), or letting other authors' books inspire your own original work, wouldn't count as derivative in that sense, even if they are referential. Writing a sequel to CATCHER IN THE RYE would be a derivative work. Writing a book about a disaffected teenager who runs away from school and has adventures in a big city would not be a derivative work in the contractual sense, even if it paid homage to CATCHER in some way.

Also, ideas aren't covered by copyright law--only their expression (the book itself). Similar ideas are everywhere in fiction, and writers working from similar ideas will generally produce completely different works.

Anonymous said...

Got it. Thanks for the clarification.

Unknown said...

I was considering sending them a short story that I've extracted from my recently completed unpublished novel. I'm wondering if my (possible) publication of this novel would be in any way constrained by these agreements.

Victoria Strauss said...

Not entirely to my surprise, Matan never returned to answer my question. I've updated the post to acknowledge the changes to the License to Entry clause, but as I note above, I still have reservations about this contest.

Unknown said...

I entered into the contest and paid money... I never got a receipt... I emailed their support... They said to re-enter into the competition and pay money again... Still never got a receipt... I don't feel safe about this process... Arthur Powers... What should I do? Because at this rate... I don't think I'll ever participate in another short story competition again... I create superheroes I own a lot of copyrights... I plan to create my own company... but I don't trust this process... Can anyone provide clarity?

Jason Eggles said...

Is there an explanation as to why the contest's announcement date was moved by a month. Was this to allow more time for judging or were we all conned?
Unfortunately for some reason all the cautions including your own only appeared in my searches after the closing date. Haha

Jason

Unknown said...

The winners of My Best Story - Short Story Competition 2018 are now listed at:
http://bit.ly/MyBestStoryWinners

We want to thank everyone who submitted a story, it was a pleasure reading these wonderfully diverse stories, and getting to know so many interesting thoughts, characters, and plots.
And a special congratulations to Gabriel Monteros, that won first place with his story Kolkata.

We want to send a big thank you to everyone who participated in our contest and helped make it a success!

Anonymous said...

Winners just announced.

I'm confused: 13th and 14th place was won by the same person, and 14th and 15th place have the same title. Mistake? Most likely, and the same happens for 18th and 19th place.

I know it's inconsequential but...guh?

Anonymous said...

The winners have been announced. I wonder if TSSP and the judges write their own stories to keep the money. Nothing is far fetch--not after how the Johnny Bobbitt story ended.

Dear writers,
The 20 winners of our short story competition have been announced today!
While your story wasn’t chosen this time, you’ll be happy to hear that we’ve launch another short story writing competition named “New Beginnings”.

Most importantly, we’d like to give you a complimentary gift(*) from us -
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As writers ourselves, we've experienced the same challenges you’re going through, so we’ve built a revolutionary platform that enables you to get the readers you seek. Check it out right here!

To claim your gift, tap the yellow button below and use this coupon:

WRITEFOREVER

We would like to thank you, first of all, for being an amazing group of short story writers and to thank you for taking the time to submit your stories.

Want to read the winning stories? Here they are.

We are so happy and touched that you shared your stories with us ❤️

Never stop writing!
The Short Story Project Team

Yes, I want my stories to get read! <-------------------- $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

* This gift does not include the "Get Ahead" promotion option. <-------------WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!

Anonymous said...

Gabriel Monteros won 1st place with his story Kolkata? The email that I recieved has a link that lists the winner as, "Joelle Schumacher" for his story " The lake is a long way from here"
https://www.shortstoryproject.com/winners/

Victoria Strauss said...

The email seems to have been sent out prematurely. Mr. Monteros had previously withdrawn his story. The winners list on the TSSP website has been corrected to reflect Ms. Schumacher as the first-place winner (other errors pointed out in the comments above have been corrected also).

I tried to find the new contest on the website (which is annoyingly hard to navigate) but couldn't locate any sign of it.

 
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