Know Your Contract

So, I’ve been seeing a lot of hubbub today about the writer for The Vampire Diaries being “fired” (that’s the word they’re using) from her books by HarperCollins.

Before you get your “BUT THAT’S HER WORK!” outrage on, let me explain.

From what I understand of the situation, HarperCollins essentially said, “Look, vampires are hot, and we want a young adult series with vampires, let’s find an author to write that.” and they hired L.J. Smith to write the series “for hire.” What does that mean? That HarperCollins, essentially, commissioned L.J. Smith to write the series for them but, like other commissioned work, they owned what was produced. For whatever reason, HC apparently decided to remove Smith from writing the series, instead turning it over to a so-far-unnamed ghostwriter.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind here:
1. This situation is different than what happens with other authors who create their own work and then sell rights to a publisher. In those situations, the creation of the work was solely done by the author and so all rights belong to the author; in this situation, HarperCollins hired Smith to write for them in the same way that you might commission an artist to produce a painting or a newspaper might hire a columnist to produce copy for them. As with Smith and both of the latter examples, the employer, unless specified in contract, would own the work produced because that’s the good they’ve hired the creator to produce (at least as my very layman’s understanding of such things goes) and all rights that go along with it. The employer should recognize the creator of the work for having created it, which is why Smith’s name is on the cover and she’ll get creation credits for it in the future (and why columnists get by-lines, artists can put their name on their paintings, etc.), but the work and all rights are owned by the commissioner.

2. Since, at that point, Smith is more or less just a commissioned employee of HarperCollins then it is possible for them to “fire” her from “her works” because they aren’t her works, their HarperCollins’. Is that possibly a douchey move? Sure, it might be; I’m sure that Smith put not just a lot of time and effort into her creations but love as well and I can’t imagine what it would be like to be told “Thanks for all the hard work in getting this series off the ground and popular, now GTFO.” I’d probably be furious then get RAGING drunk and stay that way for a good long time (or until my wife put me in a clinic or threatened to leave me). Douchey or not, HarperCollins can do that.

3. Always be careful with what contracts you sign, always. In a quote from Smith, she said she didn’t understand what “for hire” meant in the beginning and only learned about it later “to her horror.” I think that part of this current drama is on Smith; as with any agreement or contract, the onus is on the person signing it to know what they are signing and if she didn’t want to potentially end up in this situation then she shouldn’t have signed. Maybe she was young and naïve, maybe she was just enchanted with the idea of seeing her work in print (I know I’d be), but that doesn’t excuse her from not figuring out what the contract entailed before she signed it.

4. That being said: if you don’t like what HarperCollins has done, then don’t support the series. Seriously, just don’t. If she has other books or works that HC doesn’t own, buy those; support the author instead.

As I said before, I can’t imagine what L.J. Smith is going through if this is true; losing a creation you’ve worked so hard on in that fashion, watching it instead be given to someone else, would fill me horror in the same way she expresses.

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6 Responses to Know Your Contract

  1. jfrieden says:

    Enlightening. I hope one day that I get to worry about a writing contract of any kind. You can be sure that I will call ypu first to get the low down.

    Now, to write something…

    • mattmarovich says:

      I’ll take a look at any contract you get but this is where I insert my shiny “Matt is not a lawyer and could be COMPLETELY WRONG” caveat. Look at how shiny it is!

      • jfrieden says:

        Currently, a writing contract is purely the stuff of dreams for me. I don’t have the kind of time (or is it dedication?) to write anything other than a community blog. Here’s a list of my current roles in no particular order: Husband, Father, English Teacher, Church Small Group Leader, Guitar Player in the Worship Band at church (every other month), and Board Member of the Home Owners’ Association in my neighborhood. Sometimes, when I’m not busy, I like hanging out with friends.

        Perhaps you see why it will be a long, long time before I give you a call?

      • mattmarovich says:

        Maybe, but that all depends on how you write. I understand that you’re busy, that’s a lot of commitments, but 100 words a day, diligently done, nets you a three thousand word short story in a month.

      • jfrieden says:

        Damn you and your common-sense brilliance. It’s more “fun” to play the victim of my circumstances. Now you’ve taken that from me!

      • mattmarovich says:

        You can blame my friend Andrew who was in a writing group with me for a year before the group fell apart. The guy had some really creative ideas about sci-fi and cyber punk but WOULD NOT WRITE. He’d always have some kind of excuse why he was only turning in 1k words in two months’ worth of time, never a finished anything (not even a finished scene in some cases), but what he did write was interesting. He used up all of my “I don’t have time” tolerance. 8p

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