Did That Photography Contest Just Steal Your Photographs?

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by Jeff Colburn Photo by Kelly Rabie from Pexels


Photography contests can be a great way to promote your photography business. Your images could wind up on prestigious websites, in magazines, or in publications that are sent to photo buyers all over the globe. I enter contests for this very reason, but I carefully look at the rights I'm giving away. All too often, for whatever reason, a contest will ask for rights that range from the unnecessary to the ridiculous.

I fully expect to have my winning images used to promote the contest and the company putting it on. They give me a good prize and I let them use my photographs. It's a fair trade. The problem starts when the contest asks for rights to your images, just because you entered your images.

Many contests, put on by some of the best-known magazines, organizations and galleries are basically Rights Grabs. They're nothing more than a way to get lots of images that they can use for free, and sometimes even sell for their profit, not yours. To add insult to injury, many of these contests will charge a $10 to $40 entry fee. So you're paying them to rip you off.

The rights requested by many contests would allow them to sell your image in any way they want, including:
- A printed or ebook
- Posters, screen savers, wallpaper
- To illustrate magazine articles
- Advertising and marketing pieces
- Company logos and websites
- Calendars

And you would never see a penny from these sales, or be credited for the image.

Now don't get me wrong. There are some good contests out there that aren't in the business of doing Rights Grabs, but it's up to you to determine who they are. Be sure you read all the rules before entering, paying special attention to the "Rights Granted" section.

It can be daunting to read rules as they can go on for several screens, and have links to other pages with more rules. Rules that go on for screen after screen may be a sign the contest people are trying to bury something where you won't find it, or are just asking for too much. The longer the rules, the more nervous I become. And these rules are written by the legal department and are full of legalese. Certain terms and words should set off alarm bells, including:
- In Perpetuity
- Any and all media now or hereafter known
- Designees
- By submitting an entry

Here are some samples of real rules, both bad and good. I'm not naming the bad contests because I don't want to kick that beehive full of lawyers.

Bad Rules

So you're photo isn't good enough to win, but good enough to use in our advertising, for free of course. (I was personally contacted by the head of this company and asked to enter his contest because he liked my work. I was flattered, but had to politely refuse, and I told him it was because of the rights requested.)
- The Administrator, Organizer, and their respective licensees, successors and assigns will have the right to use all or a part of your Entry, anywhere in the world and in perpetuity, for future advertising, trade, promotion and publicity in any manner and in any medium now known or hereafter devised throughout the world in perpetuity, without compensation…

If you win, your photo can be used to promote this, or any other contest, as well as for advertising, forever. Wouldn't it be nice to put a one-year limit on use?
- ... each winner grants to the Sponsor and its designees an irrevocable, royalty-free, non-exclusive, worldwide perpetual license to use and distribute… in any and all media now or hereafter known… for purposes of… advertising and promoting Sponsor… without further compensation…

WHAT??? It's bad enough that they want to use your images for free advertising, but as free downloads and wallpaper? Unbelievable!
- Entrants consent to the Sponsor offering images for free downloads and as computer wallpaper.

Good Rules

Guy Tal - - Guy's rules were short, sweet and most importantly, fair. He even titles this part of his rules, "The No-Rights-Grab Rule."
- By entering this contest, you allow me to post your submitted image(s) on this site and on my blog, along with your name. You also agree to provide your name and contact information to my sponsors in order to facilitate delivery of the prizes. You retain all other rights.

Communication Arts - - This rule is so short and sweet, it's like a breath of fresh "contest" air.
- You retain all rights to your images. If selected, you will need to grant us the right to reproduce the image or images for both our online and print-based publication.

Photo District News - - What I like about this rule is that it's short, precisely outlines where the image will be use and for how long.
- By submitting images you grant PDN the right to use the entry in exhibitions and promotions in print and online when directly related to the PDN Curator Awards for 24 months.

Photography contests require that you be an informed consumer. You can do this by:
- Reading the rules
- Understanding what you read
- Determining what rights you're comfortable giving away

Now go out there, take lots of great photographs and have fun entering contests.


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