Amtrak's Writer's Residency Is Either A Dream Opportunity Or Too Good To Be True

BRUNSWICK, ME - MAY 11:  General view of the Brunswick train station during Amtrak National Train Day at Brunswick Station on
BRUNSWICK, ME - MAY 11: General view of the Brunswick train station during Amtrak National Train Day at Brunswick Station on May 11, 2013 in Brunswick, Maine. (Photo by Cliff Kucine/Getty Images for Amtrak)

CHICAGO -- Amtrak had wordsmiths around the nation buzzing when it announced plans to launch residency program for writers in late February, but concerns over how the train service will use applicants' work now has some writers pulling the brakes.

After Amtrak released the writer's residency application on March 8, the terms and conditions outlining what Amtrak plans to do with submitted work led critics to blast the program as a "sham" and a sly way for the train service to steal writer's work and publishing rights.

Meanwhile, Amtrak social media director Julia Quinn pointed out in The New Yorker it was writers who brought forth the idea for the writer's residency in the first place.

“Is this is a disingenuous program? I would say no, in that this wasn’t something that was thought up in our last marketing brainstorm, like, How can we bring buzz for Amtrak? This was something that was thought up by the writing community, and we happened to be in the position to offer them a vehicle," Quinn said.

To be considered for the 2-5 day expenses-paid trip on Amtrak (complete with a private sleeper car, desk and "a window to watch the American countryside roll by for inspiration"), applicants are required to answer a series of questions and turn in an original, previously unsubmitted writing sample that Amtrak can use at its discretion, regardless of whether the applicant wins.

Per Section 6 of the official program terms:

"In submitting an Application, 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."

Section 6 only applies to writing samples submitted in the application, though not the work produced from the residency.

"The idea would be to potentially use the applications as a way to promote the program," which could include "[featuring] the selected residents with an excerpt from their application." Quinn told The Wire.

Amtrak has since stated via Twitter it would contact any applicant before using their work for promotional purposes.

Joe Mathewson, an assistant professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, told HuffPost the issue boils down to what he called "an "individual decision about the tradeoff."

"Applicants have to ask 'is this grant of rights a fair trade?'" Mathewson said. "Even if you're not accepted, [Amtrak] wants the right to use your name. That's a tradeoff -- free travel for the use of your name."

The writer's residency program has already received more than 8,500 applications, Amtrak spokeswoman Christina Leeds told HuffPost via e-mail Wednesday.

While questions remain concerning the program's impact on participating writers, some are already heralding it as a success for the rail service.

"Regardless of the quality of [the winners' work], Amtrak has already won this from a social media aspect," Nick Disabato, publisher of the essay quarterly Distance, told HuffPost by phone.

Amtrak is accepting applications for the residency until March 31, 2015.