Amtrak Residency Application Terms and Conditions: Proceed With Caution

When Alexander Chee was asked in a Pen Ten interview what his favorite place to write was, he responded with:

I still like a train best for this kind of thing. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers. And after trains, libraries at night, especially empty ones.

He probably didn’t imagine that this comment would spark a dialogue with Amtrak on making this happen. But on March 8, 2014, Amtrak announced that after a trial run with writer Jessica Gross, it was opening a residency application.

This is fantastic news – 24 writers will receive accommodation for a round-trip long distance journey, including a bed, a desk, and outlets.

But, the terms and conditions for submitting your application include some curious points. I would urge every writer applying to consider these in detail.  

Let’s have a close look at some of the clauses:

Who Can Apply

Only legal residents of America and the District of Columbia are eligible for Amtrak’s residency program. Applicants also need to be 18 or the age of majority where they live.

Hawaiian and Alaskan residents are not eligible for this program.

Your Writing Sample

Applications must include a writing sample of up to ten pages.

Now, what the sample can contain is where things get a little tricky.

The terms and conditions outline the usual things a writing sample can’t contain, like copyright breaches, or defamatory or racist content. But there are some further conditions that are rather conservative, and in some instances, just silly.

But it is what it is. So if you’re intending on putting in an Amtrak residency application, you need to be aware of what they don’t want in writing samples.

If you submit an application with the following content, Amtrak will not review your application and it will be automatically disqualified, as per clause 5 of the terms and conditions.

The writing sample must not contain content that:

  • violates any third party rights, including intellectual property rights like copyright and trademarks.
  • disparages Amtrak, or any person or entity related to the residency program.
  • is a brand name or trademark of any kind, other than those owned by or licensed to Amtrak.
  •  "…is misleading, inappropriate, indecent, obscene, hateful, tortious, defamatory, slanderous or libelous...” Inappropriate and indecent are the ones to watch for here. Who knows how this will be interpreted and whether erotica is not allowed in one’s application.
  • “…reflects, advocates or promotes bigotry, racism, hatred, harm or exploitation of or against any class, group or individual, discrimination based on race, gender, religion, nationality, disability, sexual orientation or age, or actions or activities that are restricted, prohibited, illegal or unlawful (including without limitation, the consumption of alcohol or any other controlled substances);” Rejecting applications that promote bigotry, racism, hatred etc. is appropriate. But the last clause in the phrase, “or actions or activities that are restricted, prohibited or illegal or unlawful…” could discount a lot of writing samples. If a strict interpretation were given to this clause, you couldn’t write about a murder. This would discount a lot of crime and thriller samples, and the more experimental literary or young adult pieces.
  • is in breach of copyright or is unlawful or in violation of or contrary to federal or state laws or regulations.
  • “… advocates violent, reckless, irresponsible or otherwise unhealthy behaviour.” Content that advocates violent and reckless behaviour could again discount a lot of writing samples. The reckless, irresponsible or “otherwise unhealthy” qualifications are, frankly, bemusing. These are incredibly open to interpretation, particularly the “unhealthy” part of the clause.
  • was previously part of a promotion or contest of any kind.

Clause 4, step 3 also states:

Third party assistance from professors or others is expressly prohibited.

This clause doesn’t work very nicely with how the writing industry works or the concept of workshops. I like to think in practicality that workshopping and the like would not be taken into account. But the clause is written in this way, so it’s something you need to be aware of.

Once Amtrak has your application, what can they do with it and the writing sample contained in it?

Theoretically, anything they like.

Clause 6 states:

Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties. In addition, Applicant hereby represents that he/she has obtained the necessary rights from any persons identified in the Application (if any persons are minors, then the written consent of and grant from the minor’s parent or legal guardian); and, Applicant grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy the name, image, and/or likeness of Applicant and the names of any such persons identified in the Application for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing. For the avoidance of doubt, one’s Application will NOT be kept confidential (and, for this reason, it is recommended that the writing sample and answers to questions not contain any personally identifiable information – e.g., name or e-mail address – of Applicant.) Upon Sponsor's request and without compensation, Applicant agrees to sign any additional documentation that Sponsor may require so as to effect, perfect or record the preceding grant of rights and/or to furnish Sponsor with written proof that he/she has secured any and all necessary third party consents relative to the Application.

So what does this mean?

  1. The rights you give to Amtrak go on forever and you can’t change them.
  2. You give all of your rights away to Amtrak to change, publish, use or copy your application – which includes your writing sample. So be careful if you are using a piece that is currently published or has been recently published and you’ve given certain rights to journals or editors.
  3. Amtrak can use your application and the writing sample for any reason whatsoever, including advertising and marketing.
  4. Amtrak can sublicense these rights you’ve given them to any third party. Practically, this would probably be to their subsidiaries or to marketing agencies they use, but it’s of note that you’re not going to know who has rights over your writing sample under this clause.
  5. Amtrak may publish your name and face, anywhere, for any reason.
  6. Your writing sample will not be confidential (and Amtrak notes that for this reason it should not contain personal information – about you or anyone else!).
  7. If you need to do anything procedurally to perfect these rights, this happens at your own cost.

The terms and conditions also include indemnity and release of liability clauses. It’s unlikely that any lawsuits or costs should come out of your application if you haven’t defamed anyone or breached their intellectual property rights, or written about anything unlawful you may have done. But in the unlikely event a claim or suit does arise, Amtrak is not responsible in any way whatsoever under clauses 7 and 12.

Finally, if you don’t accept these terms, your application won’t be considered.

Now that you’ve wrapped your head around what your application can’t contain, and what rights you’re giving away to Amtrak, good luck!

Jessica Meddows

Column by Jessica Meddows

In a previous life, Jessica worked for 12 years in the legal industry, with her last purely legal role being the corporate counsel for a property management company in Australia. Since then, she’s been the editor for an online literary journal and currently manages a music/tech start-up. She also freelancers as a contract lawyer and content producer, and writes regular columns for Litreactor and Gypsy Girl.

Jessica’s fiction and poetry has appeared in or is upcoming in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (Aus), Beware the Dark (UK), Kaleidotrope, Plasma Frequency Magazine, and Pantheon Magazine.

She loves swimming, and like Peter Singer, considers herself a flexible vegan and focuses on the welfarist approach to animal rights.

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Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb March 11, 2014 - 12:18pm

But the last clause in the phrase, “or actions or activities that are restricted, prohibited or illegal or unlawful…” could discount a lot of writing samples. If a strict interpretation were given to this clause, you couldn’t write about a murder. This would discount a lot of crime and thriller samples, and the more experimental literary or young adult pieces.

Well I'd be fucked then! Never mind that I'm a Brit and couldn't apply for this anyway; even if this happened in England I couldn't apply for anything that had a clause like this in it. Half the reason I like my current protagonist is that he's a murderer! I may be a decent person in real life, but I never want to write about that in fiction - I'll save what an upstanding citizen I am for job application forms. Imagining a character who enjoys breaking the law and getting away with it, now THAT gets me to my writing desk, FAST. Seriously, what the fuck would I write about if I sat on one of those Amtrack trains? I shudder to think. 

As for the bit about not writing about unhealthy behaviour, my characters kind of like a drink after they've just killed someone. Plus when I'm done writing about them and I want a cigarette, I'd be kind of stuck if I was living on a train! (Where I'm guessing they've long since banned people from lighting up.)

Nathan Scalia's picture
Nathan Scalia from Kansas is reading so many things March 11, 2014 - 2:12pm

I wonder if Amtrak would be willing to provide a list of classic, famous works that have never been controversial in any way and therefore could have been written during their residency program.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami March 11, 2014 - 5:46pm

I think I might pass then. I might still ride a train, but won't file as an official writer any time soon.

Actually that brings up a question, what if you didn't apply and payed for a regular train ride. And then write largely on your own time, would there be any reason they know what you wrote then.

This also cuts out a lot of people writing cyberpunk.

.'s picture
. March 11, 2014 - 9:22pm

I applied. I'm feeling the jitters.

Leonard Earl Johnson's picture
Leonard Earl Johnson March 12, 2014 - 7:53am

What they are honing their quest to find is free ad copy. A fair thing to seek, but not what most writers would see as anything but censorshp. Go Amtrak! I do often. And often write about it. 

PS: Amtrak is in this month's column

Mess_Jess's picture
Mess_Jess from Sydney, Australia, living in Toronto, Canada is reading Perfect by Rachael Joyce March 13, 2014 - 3:41pm

NB - Amtrack have said they'll reassess Clause 6 - Grant of Rights. No mention, from what I've seen, of looking at what they want in the writing sample. If the ts and cs are written to take into account writers' concerns, I'll update this column with some comments here. 

@Chacron - I'm not eligible either - I'm Australian and living in Canada. It's a bit of a shame that it's not open to people who can travel to America if they were to submit an application that was otherwise eligible and (in theory) accepted. The unhealthy behviour is one of the qualifications I thought was just downright silly!

@Nathan - The ts and cs don't atcually govern what can be written while you're on the journey (which I'm assuming will be negotiated with the writers once they have offered them placements and they've accepted!), just the writing sample itself. My theory is that that they want it to be as family/kid friendly as possible in case they have to publicise the writing sample at a later date (e.g. if they run the program again next year, and they put up the accepted entries online as examples)... but some of it's just odd. Like, there's no discretion, there should be some nod to reasonable discretion in there.