The Writing Life

Morality and the Book Contract

Seven years ago I wrote a post about the morality clause in book contracts. It was met with a collective yawn.

Today the landscape is a little different and I hope you will take the time to read this carefully. From Hollywood suddenly trying to find a moral compass to corporations trying to define bad behavior, the issue has become the latest buzzing conversation.

The issue is not one to be dismissed lightly. Sinful behavior, in any form, is deadly to the soul (Romans 6:23). This blog is not an attempt to discuss the overall issue or try to define the differences between sexual abuse, sexual harassment, or inappropriate/rude behavior. Instead I’d like to focus on how publishers have addressed the issue in their book contracts.

While the general market is struggling to find a moral standard, the Christian community has long had mechanisms in place to address many of these things. Even the “Pence Rule” is nothing new.

When it comes to book contracts many faith-based publishers have included a “Moral Turpitude” clause for decades. In case you don’t know what “Moral Turpitude” means, it 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 the U.S. 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 are many cases 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. While I was preparing this post Bethany House Publishers (a division of the Baker Publishing Group) canceled the contract of an author and his forthcoming books after it was revealed that the author had a sexual encounter with a teenage girl 20 years ago. If you read the above clause again you’ll note that the first sentence could very well have been applied by the publisher to address this tragic situation.

If you are about to sign a contract with this clause, read it closely. For example, I once negotiated a contract with two co-authors. This moral turpitude clause had to be carefully written so that if one of them went off the rails the other writer would be protected and not be held liable for the actions of the offending writer.

Not everyone is in agreement regarding the use of the clause. Years ago, Richard Curtis, agent extraordinaire, expressed surprise at a morality clause that had begun to appear in contracts from HarperCollins. [Warning: there is Adult/crude content both in his post and the comments.] In response to Richard Curtis, Ursula LeGuin, author of some legendary science fiction and fantasy, posted a riff satirizing the morality clause in book contracts. (see #12 on this page.) In light of recent events, they may not write the same thing today.

Note that for many years most product endorsement contracts include a morals clause. One article called it the “Keep Your Pants On” clause. The morals clause was there to protect a company from their celebrity spokesperson being caught doing bad things and hurting the company brand. The article cited the well documented behavior issues of Charlie Sheen and Tiger Woods as examples. Today there are a lot more public examples to choose from.

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 to you. Seriously, it is as simple as the admonition to treat one another with respect and honor. Inappropriate behavior is never okay.

In case you are interested, the New York University Journal of Intellectual Property and Entertainment Law has a brilliant and exhaustive 35 page article published in 2015 on the history of the morals clause and what it means for today.

[Some of the above was repeated from my post of January 19, 2011 for the sake of simplicity.]

 

 

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