A Crash Course in Writer’s Contracts

By Carol Tice

If you’re new to contracts, they can seem intimidating and even boggling. I recently negotiated one that was more than 10 pages long!

Which brings us to point one about writers’ contracts: They’re negotiable. Every point in them. Beyond that, here are some of the basic areas you may see covered in a contract. Some you’ll want to make sure are in there, while others you may want to try and get removed:

1. Definition of the work. The contract should state how much work you’re supposed to do and when it’s due.

2. Payment terms. I’ve learned to define these sharply. The contract may say simply that payment will be $X. You want it to say something more like “payment will be $X and due in net 30 days. A 3% monthly late charge will apply to overdue bills.” If there are any possible bonuses you can earn from traffic, retweets or anything else, they should also be defined in the contract. If it’s a new corporate client, you should be looking for 25%-50% of the contract as an up-front payment due before you start, with those terms in writing in your contract.

3. Ownership. The contract should clearly state who will own the work. This could be straightforward — it’s work-for-hire and the client owns all rights. Or it could be more complicated — the publication or client owns the work for 90 days and then you can resell it, for instance. Or they only own it for online and you could resell it to a print publication.

4. Credit. The contract should define if you get a byline — and in this Internet age, I’m asking for my byline to be a live link to my Web site. Free marketing you want to have, and many clients are happy to give it.

5. Exclusivity. You want it to say you are free to work for anyone else you choose, or for there to be no exclusivity clause. If they have competitors they don’t want you writing for at the same time, they need to name them. Resist efforts to forbid you from writing for competitors after you’re done writing for the client.

6. Warranties. The client will want you to warrant that you are not plagiarizing the material you give them, or making up lies. They assume you’re smart enough to not write anything that could get them sued for libel or defamation of character. If you do, you will take the lawsuit hit, not them. This lovely clause is also known as indemnification.

7. Confidentiality. If the client is sharing company secrets with you as you prepare articles, they’ll want you not to share that information with anyone.

8. Termination. If it’s an ongoing contract, there should be a clause stating how notice is given and how much notice either side must give to end the contract. Thirty days seems pretty standard.

9. Limitation of liability. Translation: the client would like to limit how much you could sue them for if the relationship goes sour to the amount they have paid you. Resist if you can.

10. Kill fees. Many print publications still do pay kill fees if they decide not to use your article, of 20% or so. Hopefully you won’t need it, but ask if they will offer it.

11. Likeness. These days, many markets you write for will want permission to use your headshot and bio on their site. And that’s all good!

12. Right to reproduce. A good contract will specifically grant you the right to reprint the article in any media where you produce all the content, i.e. your own writer Web site. I’ve talked to too many writers who’re worried about putting a clip on their site because they didn’t make this point clear.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer and this post should not be construed as legal advice. Seek expert advice if you have a question about a contract.

This post originally appeared on the WM Freelance Writer’s Connection.