Per an inquiry after an earlier post about Harlequin, Passive Guy is not aware of any laws designed to protect authors from deceptive or unfair publishing contracts.
In the US, many contracts consumers commonly sign, such as for mortgage or auto loans or to obtain a credit card, are subject to statutory requirements for fairness, clarity, etc.
In PG’s preternaturally humble opinion, if some of the clauses and drafting techniques commonly included in publishing contracts used by some publishers (and agency contracts used by some agents) were found in consumer contracts, those provisions would be deemed void and unenforceable. In some cases, they might constitute consumer fraud and subject publishers to fines and penalties.
However, in the absence of consumer-type protections, the laws governing business contracts assume that each party to such contracts will watch out for themselves. If both parties sign a contract, the strong presumption is that each party understood what the contract meant and voluntarily agreed to be bound by it. In extreme cases, if a lawsuit were filed, a contract might be deemed unconscionable and voided in whole or in part, but that is a high hurdle to clear.
So, what’s an author to do?
When you sign up for a new Mastercard with your bank, you are wearing your consumer hat and can assume you have some protections against unfair and deceptive contract practices. When you sign a publishing or agency agreement, you have no consumer hat on and you should not assume a “standard” contract will be fair or equitable for you. You should also not assume you will be able to easily get out of that contract if you later find it to be unfair.