Nervous Writers Have Questions About Amtrak's Residency (and Amtrak Answers Them For Us)

After all the hype and excitement over it new residency program for writers, Amtrak officially announced guidelines for the new program.

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After all the hype and excitement over it new residency program for writers, Amtrak officially announced guidelines for the new program. For starters, it will be titled (in all its social media-fueled glory), #AmtrakResidency, and they opened the online application on March 8. But a closer examination of the program's official terms has some writers tempering their interest. Specifically, they are balking at the fact that Amtrak wants rights to their submitted writing samples.

The issue arises over Section 6 of the #AmtrakResidency's official terms. The "Grant of Rights" section reads, in part:

In submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties.

Included in the application for the residency program is a required writing sample (no more than 10 pages), to ensure that Amtrak is sending actual serious writers on a residency and not just someone looking for a free ride. After reading the quoted portion of Section 6 above, however, writers are questioning whether or not they cede rights to their submitted samples simply by applying. The fear is, essentially, that Amtrak can do whatever it wants with submitted work, even work that they have been planning to use elsewhere.

On the Electric Literature blog, Connor Ferguson wrote, "To our non-legally-trained eyes, the terms come just short of granting Amtrak actual ownership of writers’ application materials ... Amtrak is demanding an exorbitant level of control over applicants’ writing — writing which, it should be noted, isn’t being submitted in order to be considered for publication." Miral Sattar, on BiblioCrunch, described the terms as not exactly "author-friendly." Alexander Chee, the writer who serves as the inspiration for the residency program, tweeted that he was talking with Amtrak to "address [writers'] concerns." The Tumblr that was once an unaffiliated hype-machine for #AmtrakResidency is now dedicated to chronicling writers' beefs with Section 6.

Along with concerns over Section 6 are those that see the #AmtrakResidency as little more than a social media stunt for the company, at the expense of serious writers. In N+1, Evan Kindley wrote, "there is something disturbing about the spectacle of so many writers and intellectuals banding together to help launch a viral promotional campaign." And that was before the official terms were released.

The distinction should be made, of course, between work submitted as an application to the residency program, and work completed during the actual residency. "The terms do not apply to any work the residents produce while on the residency," Julia Quinn, Amtrak's Social Media Director, wrote in an email to The Wire, but she confirmed that Section 6 does indeed apply to submitted writing samples.

Why, exactly, does Amtrak want the rights to applicants' writing samples? Quinn wrote that "the idea would be to potentially use the applications as a way to promote the program," which could include "[featuring] the selected residents with an excerpt from their application." She continued: "This would happen through a conversation with the applicant." 

According to Amtrak, 7,000 applications have already been submitted, for a total of 24 spots available this year. So concerns over writing sample rights haven't decreased interest too dramatically. Perhaps applicants haven't read Section 6, or they've decided it's worth it for one of the coveted spots.

"We are not in the business of publishing, instead we provide the creative and inspirational environment in which these works are created," Quinn wrote. Disgruntled potential applicants would at least agree to that first part, we think.   

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.