In a post written last weekend Richard Curtis, agent extraordinaire, expressed surprise at a new morality clause that has apparently appeared in HarperCollins’ contracts. Read his post here [warning: there is some Adult content and comments included in the post].
What the general market doesn’t realize is that many Faith-based publishers have had a “moral turpitude” clause in their contracts for a long time. Moral turpitude is well defined in this post on Wikipedia. It is understood in the legal community as actions or activities that can get you fired from your job, deported if you are a foreigner in this country on a Visa, or have your contract cancelled if you are an author.
Here is a typical version of the clause found in many of the contracts our agency negotiates:
MORAL TURPITUDE. In the event Author is publicly accused of an act of moral turpitude (substantiated by the preponderance of evidence, a court decision, or Author’s own admission), a violation of any Federal law or any other conduct which subjects or could be reasonably anticipated to subject Author or Publisher to public ridicule, contempt, scorn, hatred or censure, or could materially diminish the potential sales of the Work, Publisher will have the right to terminate this Agreement upon written notice to Author of the public disclosure of such conduct or alleged conduct. In the event of such termination of this Agreement, Publisher will have the right to demand from Author and receive payment within thirty (30) days of the demand, a sum equal to all advances paid to Author under terms of this Agreement that have not been recouped by Publisher prior to said termination. Upon such payment all rights granted to Publisher in the Work will terminate and vest exclusively in Author, provided that Publisher will have the right to sell or otherwise dispose of all remaining copies of the Work in any manner Publisher deems appropriate.
I do not begrudge a publisher for including this clause in a contract. It makes perfect sense. There any many cases, and a few currently pending, where a very public Christian figure has had to step down for immoral behavior. When that happens, the publisher is left holding a bag full of books and no place to sell them. (Conversely, a few agents have jokingly asked why there isn’t a moral turpitude clause that applies the same standards for the Publisher!)
Recently we did a contract with two co-authors. This moral turpitude clause had to be carefully written so that if one of the authors went off the rails the co-author would not be held liable for those actions.
The bottom line is “Don’t do bad things!” and then you won’t ever have to worry about a clause like this being misinterpreted or misapplied.
Update 01/20/11: Ursula LeGuin, author of some legendary science fiction and fantasy, posted a riff satirizing the morality clause in the HarperCollins contract. Read her article called, “A Riff on the Harper Contract.”