Friday, July 29, 2016

What You Need to Know Before Hiring a Ghost Writer

"I can never understand how two men can write a book together; to me that's like three people getting together to have a baby." -- Evelyn Waugh

Nearly 50% of marriages end in divorce. Creative partnerships fare no better. Creative partnership breakdowns, however, can be averted by a well-drafted collaboration agreement that anticipates potential conflicts.

Good Contracts Make Good Writing Partners

Collaboration agreements define the parties' goals, rights, and remedies and anticipate what could go wrong. While there is no single reason for their failure, creative partnerships often fail due to poor communication and unrealistic expectations, compounded by the lack of a solid agreement reflecting the parties' intentions.

If you do not believe a collaboration agreement is necessary to avoid the despair and disappointment of a failed collaboration, bear in mind that many publishers require you to have one.
How you deal with author credit, compensation, expenses, copyright ownership, and approval of business and creative decisions depends on the parties' leverage and sense of fairness.

Who Owns the Work?

People jointly creating a work with the intent their contributions be merged into a single work are often caught unaware of the consequences of working without a written agreement. In the absence of a formal written agreement, the law of joint authorship fills in the gaps. In such instances, copyright law presumes equal ownership and royalties. Judges do not apportion a larger or smaller revenue share based on the collaborators' contributions, experience, or reputation. Expenses and profits are split 50/50 - unless otherwise agreed to in writing.

If legally determined to be a joint work, each author is treated as the owner of the entire work. Either may exploit the work.  However, a coauthor can grant non-exclusive licenses to copy, distribute, adapt, display and perform the work, subject to a duty to account to each other. Imagine a situation in which a film studio expresses interest in adapting a jointly authored biography of President Zelensky of Ukraine. The studio will demand the exclusive right to adapt the book to avoid two competing biopics. Without a written agreement addressing ownership and control, an uncooperative co-author (or a deceased co-author's estate) can prevent the licensing or sale of motion picture or other rights.

Ghost Written & "As Told To" Books 
If the objective is to strengthen your personal brand or create brand awareness of your business, a work for hire agreement is an acceptable way to own and control the content you've contracted for. There are two sets of circumstances that determine if a work qualifies are a work for hire: (i) an employee acting within the scope of their employment; and (ii) there's an agreement that states the work is a work for hire owned by the party that commissioned it. The influential Second and Ninth Circuits, for example, require that a work for hire agreement be signed for work begins. 
Just like collaboration agreements, no two ghostwriter agreements are alike. While a writer for hire may give up copyright ownership, what form of credit they receive  (discussed below), how revenue will be shared, and what happens if the hiring party decides to abandon the project is subject to negotiation. 
A ghostwriter agreement should clearly state what is to be delivered and when. In addition to word count, delivery dates, and revisions, you must define precisely what you need from the writer. Is it a warts and all, non-idealized memoir? Or is the ghostwriter's job to put the best face on your story without resorting to blatant deception? It's a good idea to attach a book proposal to the agreement or reference it. This establishes a standard under which the ghost writer's performance can be judged. More about this topic later.

Compensation is generally in progress payments tied to satisfactory (and timely) delivery. Typically, a portion of the writer's fee is paid on signing. Milestone payments are contingent on the subject finding the work acceptable.   

Case & Comment. Consider the failed collaboration between Fay Vincent, the former commissioner of baseball, and writer David Kaplan. Because they were friends, Kaplan "did not believe a formal agreement was necessary." Orally they agreed they would share credit and split the income 60/40, with the lion's share going to Vincent. Kaplan's faith in the project was amply rewarded - a least initially. Little Brown offered to pay the authors an advance of $300,000, one-half payable upon signing their publishing agreement. After 90% of Vincent’s memoir was written, Vincent got cold feet and terminated the publishing agreement. Under Little Brown's publishing agreement, they were required to return their advances. Vincent repaid the entire $150,000 to Little Brown, allowing Kaplan to keep $60,000. The issue before the court was whether Vincent could prevent Kaplan from publishing the manuscript. See Kaplan v. Vincent, 937 F. Supp. 307 (SDNY 1996).  Kaplan argued that he and Vincent were joint authors, allowing him to grant non-exclusive licenses. Because of the conflicting evidence of the parties' intent at this stage of the litigation, the court denied Kaplan's motion for a summary declaratory judgment on the issue of joint authorship. Likewise, the court dismissed Vincent's motion to dismiss, in which Vincent claimed he did not contemplate joint authorship. What began informally ended badly because of the lack of a collaboration agreement.

The Deal Terms

Below are the major elements of a collaboration agreement.  Whatever your negotiation style, don't lose sight of the fact a workable agreement is often a reasonable agreement. 

Responsibilities. If you are writing a nonfiction work,  you need a book proposal to secure an agent or publisher. A nonfiction book proposal is usually written with the understanding that substantive work on the actual manuscript will not begin until there is an offer from a publisher. Typically, the proposal includes a detailed overview of the book, the author and writer's credentials, the competition, and information about how the book can be marketed, plus one or two sample chapters. The proposal is the bait used to solicit interest from publishers.

 A nonfiction book proposal is usually written with the understanding that substantive work on the actual manuscript will not begin until there is an offer from a publisher.  Typically, a writer will predicate completion of the manuscript on a minimally acceptable advance.  

Fees & Royalties.  If the advance falls short of the parties' expectations, one party can defer all or part of their compensation from the monies advanced.  Once advance has been recouped from sales and licensing revenue, the person who deferred can start getting paid, perhaps on more favorable terms than if they had not deferred payment. Deferring payment is also a way for the subject of a book to obtain the services of a more experienced writer without having to go out of pocket for a large sum.   
Payment of the advance is tied to delivery requirements.  For example, a book publishing contract may specify 50% will be paid on signing, 25% on delivery of the first half of the manuscript, and the balance on delivery and acceptance of the complete manuscript. A missed deadline can result in the cancellation of a book contract and demand for the authors to repay the advance. 

Keep in mind even those who do not qualify as joint authors for copyright purposes (for example, individuals who made an important – but not copyrightable -- contribution to a book) may still share in the profits and control of a work through an appropriate contractual arrangement.   

Credit. By some estimates, up to 70% of nonfiction books are ghostwritten. It is widely believed that Theodore Sorenson wrote John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Profiles in Courage,” for which JFK took both the prize and sole author credit.

Writing credits take various forms.  Typical writing credits include: "by Subject and Writer" or "Subject with Writer" or "as told to Writer." By definition, if a book is ghostwritten, sole authorship credit for the work will be in the subject’s name only. When the writer's name doesn't appear on the cover, all of the career-building goodwill inures to the putative author.  That lays the foundation for a ghost requesting a higher fee.  When both parties are credited, the size and prominence of their names, and their order, need to be negotiated. 

Work for Hire.  work for hire means that the hiring or commissioning party is the author and owner of the work.  There are two instances in which a work for hire can occur: (a) a specially ordered or commissioned work; or (b) a work created by a regular employee in the course of their employment. This definition is an oversimplification of what constitutes a work for hire. However, before you start working with a friend or a freelancer, it is crucial to clarify in writing if the work is intended as a work for hire. Include language in the agreement that explicitly states that the work is for hire and legal ownership vests in you. The agreement should include a backup assignment/transfer of copyright to cover all bases.  

Death & Disability.  What happens if someone dies, becomes disabled, or the parties determine that they just can't work together any longer? If a textbook, or other work that is regularly revised, it's a good idea to include a provision giving the surviving author the sole right to revise the work.  In the textbook arena, it's common to include a provision that reduces the royalties paid to the non-participating author.  A well-drafted collaboration agreement will also address if the person hired to work on the revision receives author credit.  

Final Approvals. Control of business affairs (e.g., who is responsible for seeking out and approving book deals?) and editorial matters (e.g., who has the authority to approve the final draft of the work or authorize revisions?) are critical issues. Unanimity may be required for certain decisions (e.g., approval of the initial publishing contract).  Suppose one party retains approval rights over the manuscript. In that case, the other party should try to impose reasonable limitations, such as a chance to correct the manuscript within (e.g., 30) days after receipt of the other party’s comments.  Requiring the party with approval rights to provide detailed editorial reasons for any dissatisfaction establishes objective criteria by which the writer can revise and have their contribution judged. 

Representations & Warranties.  From a ghostwriter, or "as told to" writer's perspective, the subject should represent and warrant that they will: (i) provide access to pertinent documents, e.g., diaries, memorabilia, legal or other documents; (ii) provide reasonable access to themselves; (iii) use their best efforts to provide the writer with access to other individuals as may be required to write or finish the book; and (iv) cooperate in good faith with the writer in pursuing a publishing deal.  Special attention should also be paid to the indemnity clause.  An indemnity is a promise to reimburse the other party should they breach their warranties. 

Reciprocal representations and warranties include: (i) no contractual commitments (e.g., a confidentiality agreement) exist that will interfere with the ability to perform their obligations; (ii) their work is original and will not violate any copyrights, rights of privacy, and publicity, or constitute a libel against, or violate any other common law rights or other rights of any person or entity.  

Suppose liability arises because of a contract breach. In that case, the non-breaching party should be reimbursed for costs and expenses (including reasonable attorney's fees), and damages paid out to others.  From the writer's perspective, material written or provided by the subject should be excluded from the writer's representations and warranties.   
TIP.  Since verifiable truth is a complete defense to libel in the United States, the agreement should require both parties to retain copies of all recorded interviews, transcripts, books, notes, letters, emails, and other research materials used to prepare the book. If there is a lawsuit, you may be required to prove the truth of the published statements. (see §9.12.1, The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook (John Wiley & Sons).
Confidentiality & Non-Disparagement Clauses.

Confidentiality clauses are huge issues for celebrities and other public figures. Here's the confidentiality clause from the unsigned collaboration agreement between Fay Vincent and David Kaplan discussed above:  
All material, whether oral or written, contributed by either party for use in the manuscript, including materials and information provided before the execution hereof, shall be considered confidential. Neither party shall use any of such material or the facts or the information contained therein that have been provided with the parties' collaboration except as permitted hereunder or under an agreement with a third party to which both parties have previously agreed in writing, without the express prior written approval of the other party. In no event shall any confidential material otherwise be used by the party that has not furnished the same in the event there is any termination of the agreement. Specifically, Kaplan agrees not to participate in interviews, write any articles or books, or take any actions in or by which he discloses in any manner any of the unpublished information furnished to him hereunder, or any portion thereof, in connection with the work which is not publicly available or independently discovered by Kaplan, including any non-public aspect of the relationship of the parties involved in the preparation or the writing of the Work and/or its adaptation for use in any media whatsoever ....
I recommend that my clients include a non-disparagement clause in their agreements. For example: 
You agree that you will not (nor will you cause or cooperate with others to) publicly criticize, ridicule, disparage or defame Subject, his family, his business associates, company, directors, officers, shareholders, employees, agents, or attorneys, with or through any written or oral statement or image, whether or not they are made anonymously or through the use of a pseudonym. 
Nondisclosure agreements usually contain an exception, allowing one to share or discuss the agreement with their literary agent, attorney, tax preparer, or as compelled by a court or government agency (e.g., the IRS).  

Collaboration and ghostwriter agreements are preventative medicine. Although collaborators might not feel comfortable discussing copyright ownership, death, disability, compensation, and related issues, a well-drafted agreement can limit your distress and save you thousands of dollars in lawyer fees if a dispute should arise.       

© 2013 - 2016.  Lloyd J. Jassin  
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Disclaimer: This article discusses general legal issues of interest and is not designed to give any specific legal advice concerning any specific circumstances. It is important that professional legal advice be obtained before acting upon any of the advice contained in this article.

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