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On Copyright: Eschaton

I’ve already told the sad story of how I graduated, gave up on my dream, and took a day job. I’ve also since admitted that it wasn’t really all that bad, thanks to some dedicated friends — including one who came to Tulsa to work with me.

That was Toby, and before he came to work with me, he happened across a job posting he thought I might be interested in, and passed it along. When I dug a little deeper, I discovered it wasn’t exactly a job offer. It was a writing competition on the web forum for a game that didn’t actually exist.

They wanted a staff writer, though, and that sounded to me like a ridiculously cool gig. So I put in my submission — 1200 words or so adapting an Arthurian legend to their sci-fi space-warfare universe — and waited to hear back with comments.

What I got was a big official-looking envelope in the mail, and a nine-page contract that spelled out in intricate detail what they wanted me to write, who owned what “game concepts,” how much new material they expected me to provide, and when I could hope to get paid. The answer to that last one was an optimistically-worded “never.”

It was clear, reading through that document, that they had put a lot of thought into intellectual property rights. They reserved to themselves the universe (since they’d already come up with a setting that was integral to their game engine), and they asserted the right to reject any story material that they felt ran contrary to their universe, but other than that they were anxious to protect my rights.

For page after page they clarified that any characters, new settings, storylines, plot developments, representations, or descriptions I provided them would remain my own creative works completely under my control until such time as the game secured full funding and they could pay me a real salary. In the meantime, I’d provide them with stories and grant them the limited one-time right to publish them on the website (since that was the whole point), and if we parted ways I’d be able to do with them whatever I wished (assuming, of course, I could sufficiently scrub them of references to the larger universe).

It was, honestly, one of the most flattering documents I’ve ever read, and it showed — on the part of a technically-minded programmer and a somewhat-savvy business major — a surprising respect for my status, my expertise, and my rights as an artist.

It was also entirely unnecessary. The envelope also contained a $200 check to serve as a retainer until such time as they secured funding, contingent (of course) on my acceptance of the contract. For 200 bucks and a fiction writing gig I’d have signed over the rights to my firstborn. I mailed the signed contract back to them, and started flooding their inboxes with far more story than they could have possibly anticipated.

Getting Paid to Write

For me, that check was a more emotional validation than all the respectful legalese. It was the first money I ever earned writing stories, and that made it special. (It was also the last penny I ever saw from that project, but who’s counting?)

We all want to get paid to write. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here (not on a Thursday, anyway). It’s a tough dream to realize, though, even if you’re willing to settle for work like that. (I probably ended up clearing less than a dollar an hour on the work I did for them, but it was a lot of fun.)

But right now, there are basically two models for getting paid as a writer. Professional writing can pay you a handsome salary to show up at work and sit at a desk all day, where you’ll write really boring stuff.  Creative writing is a lot more fun, but it’s ridiculously hard to break into the market, and even when you do, it pays a wildly erratic salary.

If you’re trying to play that game, you’ve got my sympathy. You’ve also got a lot of factors to consider, and I’ve been considering them for most of a decade. So come back tomorrow and I’ll tell you the ins and outs of how copyright generates income.

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