When I first became an editor, back when your ma was wiping strained prunes off your chin, newsroom negotiations were simple. Things tended to go like this:

Editor: I’d like you to write a 900-word story about figs.

Freelance writer: Okay.

Editor: I will pay you $300 for this story, which you need to complete by next Friday.

Writer: Those terms are acceptable. I will do a good job, consistent with my abilities and the time allotted.

Editor: Don’t be a jackass during the editing, okay?

Writer: No problem. Don’t edit it like imbeciles, okay?

Editor: You got it.

(They shake hands.)

Things might not have changed all that much, or so I decided the other day when I had a similarly abbreviated conversation with a producer at a highly regarded TV production company. She wanted to film a show based on a chapter in my new book, and proposed that I act as a consultant, maybe even appear on camera. A small fee was mentioned. I accepted. The pertinent part of this conversation lasted no longer than 30 seconds. We agreed on everything, including our regard for each other.

So things were going swell, right up until something happened. I think you might suspect what it is.

Man on phone, from TV company: Hi, I’m a lawyer, and ...

Me: GO AWAY. (Hangs up.)

Okay, I didn’t really hang up. We kept talking but my nerve endings were atingle. It turned out that the company required me to sign a contract, which they assured me would be routine, simple and no problem whatsoever. It turned out to be seven single-spaced pages. It required me to agree to surrender my work to the company “in perpetuity,” which, from context, as near as I could tell, includes all future time up to and including the eventual Heat Death of the Universe. These surrendered items include “without limitation, all ideas, concepts, formats, plans, titles, subtitles, outtakes, research, recipes, publicity materials, plots, themes, stories, user generated content (from any source), characters, graphics, music, audio elements, records, reports, documents ...” etc. It also required that I operate under the direction of their company, going where they tell me to go when they tell me to do it. And I will promise to act with due regard to public morals and not commit any acts of moral turpitude holding the company up to contempt, scandal or ridicule. I declined to sign this contract, but submitted my own edited version in return. This is it, verbatim:


Hi. I will help your company produce a TV show based on something I wrote, and I will do a swell job. I will even appear on camera if you want me to, though please be advised I resemble a hairy wart with ears, and I sound like the victim of a tragic rear-end collision in which a kazoo got permanently lodged in my nasal passages. But, that’s your call. You won’t own anything I do because, let’s be frank, we are talking a very small amount of money. Your company demanding ownership of my work on this would be like an electrician who installs a wall socket in your bathroom and then demands ownership of your house. If you really want my matzoh ball recipe, though, you can have it. I also solemnly promise not to commit any acts of moral turpitude that will shock the conscience of the nation, including but not limited to something involving goats in lingerie. I will not help with any competing shows before yours comes out, unless your competition offers me, like, a yacht or something, in which case good luck with that. Now comes the killer part: No money needs to change hands. I’m renouncing payment! So this isn’t really technically a contract anymore is it, Mr. Lawyer? Haha. I made you read this far for nothing! However, I am still going to sign this document, and urge you to sign it, too, just so I can frame a copy and put it on my wall.

Email Gene Weingarten at weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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