Opinion | Must Writers Be Moral ? Their Contracts May Require It - The New York Times
One answer is the increasingly widespread “morality clause.” Over the past few years, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Penguin Random House have added such clauses to their standard book contracts. I’ve heard that Hachette Book Group is debating putting one in its trade book contracts, though the publisher wouldn’t confirm it. These clauses release a company from the obligation to publish a book if, in the words of Penguin Random House, “past or future conduct of the author inconsistent with the author’s reputation at the time this agreement is executed comes to light and results in sustained, widespread public condemnation of the author that materially diminishes the sales potential of the work.”
That’s reasonable, I guess. Penguin, to its credit, doesn’t ask authors to return their advances. But other publishers do, and some are even more hard-nosed.
This past year, regular contributors to Condé Nast magazines started spotting a new paragraph in their yearly contracts. It’s a doozy. If, in the company’s “sole judgment,” the clause states, the writer “becomes the subject of public disrepute, contempt, complaints or scandals,” Condé Nast can terminate the agreement. In other words, a writer need not have done anything wrong; she need only become scandalous. In the age of the Twitter mob, that could mean simply writing or saying something that offends some group of strident tweeters.
Agents hate morality clauses because terms like “public condemnation” are vague and open to abuse, especially if a publisher is looking for an excuse to back out of its contractual obligations. When I asked writers about morality clauses, on the other hand, most of them had no idea what I was talking about. You’d be surprised at how many don’t read the small print.
Morality clauses may be relatively new to mainstream publishing, but they have a long history. The entertainment industry started drafting them in 1921, when the silent-movie star Fatty Arbuckle, who had just signed a then-astonishing $1 million contract with Paramount Pictures, was accused of the rape and manslaughter of a girl at a party. Mr. Arbuckle was acquitted after two mistrials, but by then the public had soured on him, and the studios wanted out.
Today the clauses are widespread in sports, television and advertising. Religious publishers have used them for at least 15 years, which seems fair enough. You can’t condemn a Christian publisher that cancels publication of a book called “The Ridiculously Good Marriage” after the author is accused of having sexually assaulted an underage girl when he was a youth pastor. (He apologized for a “sexual incident.”) Children’s publishers have been including the clauses for a decade or more, and they, too, have a case. It would be challenging to sell a children’s book written by a pedophile.
The problem with letting publishers back out of contracts with noncelebrity, nonreligious, non-children’s book authors on the grounds of immorality is that immorality is a slippery concept. Publishers have little incentive to clarify what they mean by it, and the public is fickle in what it takes umbrage at.
In 1947, the concern was Communism, and morality clauses gave studios a way to blacklist the Hollywood 10, a group of directors and screenwriters who denounced the House Un-American Activities Committee as illegitimate and refused to say whether they’d ever been Communists. All 10 went to jail, and all but one, who decided to cooperate with the committee, became unemployable until the 1960s, though some continued to write under pseudonyms.
Tous les arguments ne sont pas convaincants, mais la question soulevée est intéressante.