Photo Contests: Know Your Rights

Know Your Rights.

Ever try Googling “photo contest”? You’ll come across nearly sixteen million search results. With that many options, there’s got to be pretty good odds of winning somewhere, right? And it’s so tempting… There’s the allure of your name in lights (or at least in 18 point Tahoma), the possibility of having your work judged by the best in the industry, being shown next to the best work of your peers, and maybe even appearing between covers…

The companies and organizations that run photography contests are all too happy to tell you what you could win by entering their contests, from cash to merchandise to the ever-nebulous “exposure.” What they’re not nearly as eager to publicize (it’s usually buried in fine print and legalese) is what they’ll be taking from you in return. That’s because some entities run contests primarily for the purpose of data mining and “rights grabbing,” a practice wherein you sign over your intellectual property rights in exchange for whatever scraps they’re willing to throw you in return.

Which rights? Well, pretty much all of them, at least when it comes to your photos. It’s extremely important to read the fine print. Take, for example, The Great American Photo Contest, and others of its ilk. These are similar to “contests” targeted at writers (and in some cases, even run by the same people), where everyone’s a “winner,” provided you send money, sometimes for a book that may or may not come, or for “fees”; in other cases, you’re essentially being asked to transfer the copyright, and all the rights it would otherwise have conferred to you (whether in the form of recognition, or money, or just the ability to use the image as you see fit) to a third party.

The practice also extends to some bigger, and – you’d think – more reputable names. Tripod manufacturer Manfrotto recently ran a contest called “Imagine More,” the terms and conditions of which initially included the following:

“By uploading the Submission the Participant grants and agrees, for no payment, to grant to SPONSOR all intellectual property rights in the Submission and each of its constituent parts, which rights include, without limitation, the SPONSOR’s right to publish, make available to the public whether directly or indirectly, and/or reproduce on any material now existing or later created the Submission through any media now existing or available at any time during, or after, the Promotion Period notably on any related websites, in any promotional materials, whether related or un-related to the Promotion, and at any other location throughout the world, whether physical or online, that SPONSOR, in its sole discretion, deems appropriate or necessary for the operation of this Promotion and any related publicity and/or promotional purposes and for the duration of protection of the rights. Participant agrees to enter into any further documentation reasonably necessary in order to give effects to these rights.
“In addition, to the extent permitted by the Law, Participant warrants that to the extent permitted by law any so called “moral rights” in the Submission have been waived and shall not be asserted and Participant acknowledges and agrees that SPONSOR may use any ideas from any Submission or other submitted materials, whether or not Participant has been awarded a prize in connection with any such Submission or other materials.”

After a joint email sent by the Association of Photographers and Pro-Imaging expressed concern over the perceived rights grab, the company reworded the rules ever so slightly, but kept the waiver of “moral rights” intact. In case you were wondering what those “moral rights” constituted, they’re traditionally such things as receiving credit for one’s own work, and the right not to have your work used for a denigrating purpose. It should be noted that the Manfrotto example isn’t somehow an aberration; this is a common practice.

Your best, and perhaps only, defense is your due diligence, including the following: Find out who’s judging; the contest may be judged by photographers who bring years of experience to the table, or its “judges” may be little more than a handful of people with no more experience or publishing credits than you’ve got. Also be sure to read the terms and conditions of the contest in full before entering. Google the name of the contest and its sponsor(s) and see what complaints exist against them. Most of all, don’t submit anything if the organization asks for your money or makes unreasonable demands on your rights.*

In case you’re tempted to enter a photo thinking that it’s not representative of your best work, so it’d be no great loss if you “won” and gave up your rights to that particular photo: I’d still advise against it, for the simple fact that you’re giving your tacit agreement to a practice, and an organization, that’s all too happy to profit off others’ hard work while giving back very little in proportion to what they’re willing to take. Your participation is, in effect, the oxygen that allows this kind of thing to thrive. You and I may not be able to stop the practice as individuals, but if enough of us put a foot down and cut off that oxygen supply, someone’s bound to notice.

*To clarify: in order to run a contest, you need to ask for some rights; these will generally involve some kind of first-publication or serial rights, and are reasonable requests. What you have to watch out for is the kind of permission you’re granting (what, exactly, are they asking for?), as well as the duration for which you’re granting those rights. The aforementioned Manfrotto contest, for instance, included the following in its rules: in any media, worldwide, without limit in time. Pay attention to phrases like these, as you’re assigning your rights to that photo to someone else in perpetuum. There’s a lot more to be said on the subject of photographers’ legal rights and responsibilities, and I will no doubt do that in the days and months ahead. In the meantime, if you’re concerned with your intellectual property rights (and you should be), there are a number of excellent books on the subject, not to mention that the services of a lawyer can be invaluable for the big stuff.

Postscript: Not surprisingly, an organization has evolved to document some of the more egregious examples of rights grabbing, and also to encourage companies and others that run contests to voluntarily adopt standards that honor and protect photographers’ rights. You can visit the Artists’ Bill of Rights here, and find the Manfrotto example cited above here.