I've got a contract in front of me for magazine filler material. They want to publish it this September, and they'll pay me $15. In exchange, they want my signature on a piece of paper.
This is what the piece of paper says:
"I hereby grant to MAGAZINE NAME REDACTED and to its legal representatives, successors and assigns, a world-wide, perpetual, non-revocable, sub-licensable and transferrable right to do and to authorize the following, in all languages and in all formats, configurations, means and media now existing or hereafter devised, discovered or devloped (including, without limitation, physical copies, digital media, electronic transmission, "new technologies" and portable electronic devices): 1) to prepare derivative works based on the work…"
Wait, wait, wait. WHAT?
Don't let your head swim. When you get a contract from a publisher or a literary agent, you need to know what you're signing. So look at the above.
The magazine is, as best I can understand, only published in English. So why do they want rights in every language? The magazine is online, sure, so I guess I can see worldwide rights. But irrevocable? And sublicensable? And they want the rights to any derivative works they may be able to create based on my piece?
And they want to pay fifteen dollars for all that?
I'm not saying you shouldn't sign this contract. But you need to know what you're doing.
If this were, say, The New Yorker, I might sign it because I'd want to be able to say I'd been published in The New Yorker. But it's not. There's a 99% chance you've never heard of this magazine, so no prestige and exposure from this publication.
If they were offering me a thousand dollars for worldwide perpetual rights in every language and in every technology that may ever be invented, I think I'd take that too. But not for fifteen bucks.
Looking further into the contract, they're further specifying all this is for the life of the copyright, which means the writer will not outlive this contract. Even if they go bankrupt, the writer has given them permission to sell all these rights to someone else.
The contract also looks a little deceptive to me because there are places where it discusses ending the agreement on the date specified, but they don't specify a date. And another paragraph says these rights are exclusive to their magazine for one year -- but that only means you can sell non-exclusive rights to this work afterward, not that the contract terminates.
Here's the takeaway: when you get an agreement from a publisher or an agent, read it. Really read it. Make sure they're only asking for rights you're willing to sell, rights they plan to use. I would suggest looking for words like "irrevocable" and "perpetual" and really scrutinizing who benefits if you can't terminate the agreement.
Don't sign anything that doesn't specify how you can get out of it.
Don't sign anything you don't understand. Ask questions. Ask more questions if you don't understand the answers, and if you don't understand those answers, then maybe wonder if someone doesn't want you confused. And who benefits if you sign an agreement you don't understand?
If there's something you don't agree to in that agreement, don't sign it. Negotiate a change (agents are in the business of negotiation, remember, so if an agent hands you this agreement, negotiate it) and be willing to walk away. But don't tell yourself, "Oh, that will never come up," because it's pretty much a guarantee that the one thing you don't want to come up in a contract will definitely do so, and at the worst possible time.
In this case, I wrote to the magazine and withdrew my submission due to their contract terms. The editor wrote back and assured me these were the industry standard. (They're not.) I replied with a couple of parallel contract paragraphs I had agreed to sign (because they were fair and reasonable) and added that my agent also had issues with their contract. The editor never replied.
My takeaway? Know your rights and sign them away only for what they're worth. And if you'll pardon me, this contract has an important appointment with my shredder. Wouldn't want to keep it waiting.