The fine print: great moments in book contracts (i) blasphemy

Anyone who’s seen a book contract knows they don’t veer towards the concise. I want at least some of that detail in there, since it specifies what I’m selling and – just as important – what I’m not, and it tells me what, how and when I’m getting paid.

Then there are the sad end-of-life clauses (some about the book, some about the author) that we probably all skim read and would prefer not to think about. And there are the mind-numbing bog-me-down-in-brain-sludge clauses about taxes and remedies for things and other tedium that I suppose needs to be right but that makes your soul a little smaller just through the act of reading it. I recently signed a contract that had twelve clauses about how GST (Australian sales tax) was to be handled. I’m going to print those two pages out and put them beside my bed for the next time I have 3am insomnia.

But too easily lost in the fine print are some of the whacky clauses that no living person can account for, and that everyone skim reads and (almost) no one questions. One of my favourites is blasphemy. Yes, a clause in which I’m expected to warrant that my book does not contain blasphemous material.

Because the law in Australia comes down really hard on blasphemy, doesn’t it? Um, no, actually. While some people may find blasphemy offensive – and if that’s what your faith tells you, far be it from me to suggest you should feel otherwise – the law lost interest in blasphemy a while back, around the time it stopped requiring all cars to be preceded by a man on foot with a red flag and a whistle.

In Australia, the Crown last prosecuted for blasphemy in 1919. In Queensland, the Blasphemy Act of 1697 was repealed in 1899. In New South Wales, the last successful prosecution for ‘blasphemous libel’ occurred in 1871, when an architect called William Lorando Jones got two years for saying the Old Testament was immoral and unsuitable reading for women. (He was out in four weeks.) In several Australian states, the law spends so little time on blasphemy that no one seems to know whether it’s a crime or not.

All remaining references to blasphemy in Commonwealth law were removed in 1991, with the interesting exception of prohibiting the registration of a ship with a blasphemous name. No book of mine will register a ship, so we should be safe enough there. Note: don’t go trying to register your yacht as, say, Freya or Diana though, because they’re gods in some parts.

So, I go in well-armed each time for the fight about the blasphemy clause, and then it turns out no one wants to have it. It comes out when my agent asks for it to come out, because no one can account for why it’s there in the first place.

But what if the blasphemy clause had stayed? Would it mean no character in the book could say the Lord’s name in vain? Some of my characters can’t resist a bit of idle blasphemy. It’s who they are (and you should feel free to judge them for it as much as you like). I’m not going to draw a cartoon of the Prophet, but nor am I going to stop my characters saying ‘Jesus Christ’ if they hit their thumb with a hammer.

At least they’re not going to (gasp) practise magic. I’m pretty sure there was a load of fire and brimstone directed JK Rowling’s way for that in some parts of the US. Google Harry Potter plus blasphemy and you get 3,930,000 hits. I wonder if there were any blasphemy clauses in those contracts?

Back tomorrow with part (ii), and another clause worth a close look …

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1 Response to The fine print: great moments in book contracts (i) blasphemy

  1. Lindy says:

    I hope to Christ there’s no blasphemy fine print in the T&Cs for replying to posts.

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