"Morality clauses" in publishing contracts

Brian G Turner

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Claiming this is against "Free Speech" is a red herring, as there are publishers for every niche of the political spectrum.

Additionally, in all my business dealings, whether as an advertiser, affiliate, publisher, or services provider, it has often been a contract term that a company can sever ties if I am seen to adversely impact their brand. Employers can and do fire people for the same.

I don't see why writers should be any different. Nor should anyone feel they are entitled to a mainstream publishing contract - especially if they act like a complete dick.

In the past it has been common for media companies to sign up controversial writers for the simple reason that controversy generates attention, and attention generates sales. It's about time publishers started to show a basic sense of ethics about this. Media companies can do better than trolling their readers.

Agents comparing this to the violence of the French Revolution is laughable.

EDIT: The language is ironically similar to Roman Polanski's, who today reportedly protested his removal from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts, after they introduced a similar clause before kicking him out:

Polanski threatens to sue Oscars body

"Sometimes it's very dramatic, like the French Revolution or the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre in France, or sometimes it's less bloody, like 1968 in Poland or McCarthyism in the US. Everyone is trying to back this movement, mainly out of fear... I think it's total hypocrisy."

Said the convicted rapist - clearly exercising Free Speech on a major media platform - even though he now stands alongside Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby as disgraced ex-members of the Academy.
 
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Onyx

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The problem I see (and I'm not on either side of this), is that "moral turpitude" has become stating unpopular opinions or behaving poorly under shifting standards, not just behavior that is legally actionable. In a previous decade, that would mean cancelling a writer's contract because they were gay, or refused to testify about "unAmerican" activities before Congress.

And while an author can simply seek a new publisher who is okay with "turpitude", an industry-wide move toward morality clauses creates a legal expectation that it is standard industry practice to do so, leaving any publisher who does not enforce such standards potentially liable themselves.

William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson would likely have not passed the sniff test in their day. What about felons like Martha Stewart or Voltaire?

I don't think it makes sense to judge a book by what is external to its text - unlike a sports star that is being paid for continued future performances, a book contract is a legal agreement for payment on completed work. Publishers being able to opt out completely for any revealed "anti-social" behavior at any point in the author's life puts a tremendous burden on the author to have never done anything that might be newly judged as unacceptable.


That said, I read of Milo's loss of his book contract with great delight.
 

Extollager

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Said the convicted rapist - clearly exercising Free Speech on a major media platform - even though he now stands alongside Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby as disgraced ex-members of the Academy.


Don't exceptional instances make for bad laws?
 

Brian G Turner

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We're not talking about laws, though, simply business contracts. IMO the publishers involved aren't trying to police the morals of authors, as much as put in place basic brand protections that most every other corporation has.
 

Foxbat

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Doesn't bringing a company into disrepute already cover this sort of thing? Of course, if I'm wrong then it's the perfect way for an author to get out of a contract he/she no longer wishes to be in...just get exceedingly drunk and splatter the airwaves with expletives and gross behaviour. Seemples:)
 

Toby Frost

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I'm no fan of the instinct to shut down rather than debate, which seems to have gained force over recent years. But I agree with much of what Brian says: this is ultimately a commercial issue. I realise that a lot of writers would say that the playing field between author and publisher isn't even (and I agree), but if you don't like the terms, you shouldn't sign the contract.

Of course, there are degrees of moral turpitude. If, say, a sad attention-seeker was to make comments appearing to condone crime against minors (a purely theoretical example), then I can see no reason why he shouldn't be dropped. Who wants to be associated with that? It gets more interesting when someone leads a shameful but not necessarily criminal life. If it turns out that a writer of morality tales is a raging hypocrite, the publisher should be free to drop him, but he should also be free to bring a civil action against the publisher (and one hopes they'll have the sense to check their position first). There may be an argument that it goes to the heart of the contract that a writer of, say, "Bible stories for the instruction of Christians" will be at least a Christian himself, but that's probably a different issue.

All in all, I agree that the "me too" reference is a bit of a red herring. My feeling is that this is a commercial issue rather than a cultural one.
 

Cathbad

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An author isn't an employee of the company publishing his work, and the world doesn't consider them so. A huge percentage of readers couldn't tell you the publishing house of their favorite author!

No... this is simple propaganda, and another reason I am glad I never wanted to go the traditional trade publishing route.
 

janeoreilly

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I think it's a tricky one - I'm glad that they are putting the message out there that being a creep will hurt your career in publishing. There are too many (sometimes well known and big selling) male writers who have seen conferences as an opportunity to touch up women knowing that there would be no come back because as long as they were selling they could do what they liked. But on the other hand, as has been said, they need to be very clear about when this clause would be applied.
 

WaylanderToo

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Out of curiosity - who would then own the rights to the works already published?

Who decides what is right/wrong? If for example Israel Folau was an author w/should he be dropped because he answered a direct question WRT his stance on homosexuality, Rees-Mogg and his views on abortion (again in response to a direct question)?

Slippery slope for me I'm afraid
 

Onyx

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Who decides what is right/wrong?
In the US right now there is an increasing tendency to treat people who are defending the right to firearms as defenders of violence, even though it is based on 12th and 17th century English law. Some countries are making it illegal for women to cover their faces with veils. Morality is no longer a clear societal wide code of right or wrong, but a rapidly shifting and often partisan rulebook that operates more like fashion.
 

Cathbad

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Who decides what is right/wrong?
Exactly. A publishing house has the right to publish or not; but not to decide what is moral or not.

For centuries, men held the power. Women were hard pressed to prove any accusation of sexual misconduct. They were subjected to attacks on their sexual history, while men were shielded. It was wrong. Fortunately, the laws are changing. Also unfortunately, we are doing exactly what humans have always done - overcompensating.

If something is wrong, it's wrong for all. It doesn't help to simply reverse the situation.

But I digress. My point is simply that the publishing houses' rights concerning an author's morals should end with their decision to publish or not.
 

Toby Frost

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Publishers being able to opt out completely for any revealed "anti-social" behavior at any point in the author's life puts a tremendous burden on the author to have never done anything that might be newly judged as unacceptable.

I agree. I would very much hope that such clauses would only come into effect if the writer was accused of actual criminal offences (or promoting them) or gross hypocrisy that made a nonsense of what he was writing. Besides, am I under any requirement to actually like the writers whose work I enjoy?
 

Toby Frost

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I’m digressing here, and perhaps it’s the basis for a new thread, but it does strike me how much a writer is supposed to have a public persona compared to the pre-internet days. It’s as if one is expected to be (preferably) continuously witty, highly photogenic, deeply “woke” and permanently lovable even when irritated or tired. I remember when it was sufficient to just write good books.

Obviously, the examples I’ve given fit with the “progressive” end of SF, but I’m sure that there is an equivalent for, say, right wing military SF writers too (my mental image is of a cheerful pioneer, with family, pets, flags and rifles). I can think of only one author who seems to try not to be “nice” (Terry Goodkind), and even he does things online that will please and entertain his fanbase. When I was younger, I knew nothing about the writers I liked. Ray Bradbury could have been a recluse, a convicted felon or a house pseudonym for all I knew. It seems almost impossible to just be a name on a cover anymore.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to shout at a cloud and tell some young'uns to get off my lawn.
 

SilentRoamer

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I think making moral judgements is well within their right as this is a commercial enterprise but I find it wholly distasteful. It seems less likely that those whose morality would be used as a contractual bludgeon would be from the liberal or "progressive" side of the spectrum and my suspicion is that it would end up being used to club morally, and by extension politically Conservative people.

I think there should be a seperation between an author and their works - unless their works centres around their beliefs or they are promoting a specific world view. I'll give an example I oft give in this situation - Orson Scott Card. I abhor his views on homosexuality and same sex marriage - being proud that the Conservative government here in the UK legalised same sex marriage. However he has a right to have those views and I think a commercial boycott on his work due to his moral stance would have made SFF a poorer place. Enders Game and Speaker for the Dead are both (ymmv) very good books. Neither of them make a moral stance on homosexuality - so why should I allow this moral variance to affect my enjoyment of the books.

Now I understand some people may feel the opposite - they may not want to read OSC for those very reasons. The reason I find this distasteful is that the Pub houses will be making moral decisions based on their readerships - who is to say that their readership agrees with their decisions and who is to way what may be lost? Opposing views to the progressive agenda seem to be getting increasingly sidelined and accused of moral wrongness - which usually takes the form of accusations of racism, misogyny, sexism, toxic masculinity, white male privilege and other forms of labelling identikit politics. I fear that when these things can then be used to make commercial decisions that they will be used as another weapon to wield against Conservatism.

If for example a publishing house was to refuse to publish a novel because they believed homosexuality was a moral wrong - would this be as equally acceptable as those on the other side of the spectrum - I suspect not and I can smell double standards.

I think another key factor here is the nature of morality - I wouldn't for example read a book written by a convicted peadophile, no matter how amazing it may be - my moral compass would cloud everything I read, so I understand there are going to be personal differences and morality is such a specific thing - it varies by place, gender, ethnicity, culture, age and many other factors, so lumping moral equivalence for everyone seems to ,me a bad idea.

I won't go any further as I suspect I may have gone to far into politics. Sorry @Brian G Turner if this is the case - as always I remain respectful and polite to any who disagree. :)
 

WaylanderToo

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I think another key factor here is the nature of morality - I wouldn't for example read a book written by a convicted peadophile, no matter how amazing it may be - my moral compass would cloud everything I read, so I understand there are going to be personal differences and morality is such a specific thing - it varies by place, gender, ethnicity, culture, age and many other factors, so lumping moral equivalence for everyone seems to ,me a bad idea.


even then there is, I suspect a variance. Take for instance Roman Polanski, I'm glad he's been stripped of his achievement award (though sad it's taken so long). Would the situation change if, for instance, his victim was 15 and he was 19? The act itself could still be prosecuted and he be convicted as a paedophile and, without knowing this background, be viewed as someone who has done this with pre-pubescent children.
 

Brian G Turner

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I abhor his views on homosexuality and same sex marriage ... However he has a right to have those views and I think a commercial boycott on his work due to his moral stance would have made SFF a poorer place.

I totally agree - but I think we're being misled by the term "morality clause", which appears to be an interjection particular to the article itself.

I doubt the literary middle classes would stand to be judged on their personal beliefs and opinions - but may be sympathetic to a publisher wanting to cancel a contract with an author judged to have committed one or more serious crimes, especially in recent times.

So far as I can tell, the article simply suggests publishers are now putting in that provision to protect themselves and their brand - because previously they would have had no such grounds for such a cancellation, and could have been sued for even trying to do so.

Of course, if I'm wrong, I stand to be corrected. :)
 

Foxbat

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So would Mein Kampf fall into this bracket? Hitler killed millions and the book is still in print. Where does morality stand in this case?
 

Ursa major

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the article simply suggests publishers are now putting in that provision to protect themselves and their brand
One of the problems is that the publishers do not seem to be tying the definition down...

...which gives them the opportunity to walk away from a contract cost free if they can find anything that could plausibly fall foul of something that isn't well defined.

And, I note, there doesn't seem to be an obligation on the publisher -- imprint or owner -- to act morally. What are the chances that at least some of the larger publishers are sticking to the ever-more-complex rules about paying tax while straying ever further from their moral obligations to pay tax? Quite high, I would have thought, given that so many imprints are owned by large national or international corporations (whose duty** is to get the best deal for their shareholders).


** - I've heard the author, Charles Stross, argue that we already have AIs, and have done for a very long time, but ones that work by harnessing humans: companies. With that example of duty I mentioned, duty to their owners to minimise their tax burden, such companies can be thought of as ("benignly") psychopathic, in that they operate without empathy or a feeling for society, even when they operate wholly within the law and to the letter of their own rules. (And, of course, companies have been known to ignore inconvenient laws and inconvenient company rules.)
 
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