A recent contest sponsored by Frommers is a great example and seems pretty typical of most photo contests. Frommers is offering the winner of the contest $5,000 and a spot on the cover of one of their guidebooks. Indeed, if I was offered $5,000 for the cover of a guidebook, I’d take it. Even if Frommers got nothing out of the contest other than the right to use the winning photos, it would still be a good deal for them. It is probably less than what a full blown photo shoot might cost if they were to hire a professional photographer.
The catch, however, comes if you don’t win (and almost everyone who enters will not win). The contest rules state the following (emphasis theirs):
License: Participant retains ownership of the copyright in any submitted photographs. However, by entering photograph(s) in this Contest, participant grants Sponsor the irrevocable, perpetual right to edit, adapt, use and publish in any media now known or hereafter discovered any or all of the photographs without compensation to the participant, his or her successors or assigns, or any other entity. ENTERING A SUBMISSION IN THIS CONTEST CONSTITUTES PARTICIPANT’S IRREVOCABLE ASSIGNMENT, CONVEYANCE, AND TRANSFERENCE TO SPONSOR OF THE FOREGOING RIGHTS.
So even if you don’t win, they can still use your photos without any sort of compensation whatsoever. THAT is the real reason most companies run photo contests. They get a large portfolio of decent images for basically nothing. If you read the contest closely, they only say the the winner will end up on a cover. They don’t say the non-winners will not end up on a cover. (that’s a triple negative)
I should note that I’m not mad at Frommers or any other company for running contest like this one. From an business standpoint, it makes perfect sense. Why pay photographers when you can get the photos for basically free? Almost every photo contest I’ve seen has similar rules where the act of entering means you give away the rights to your photographs, for what in all probability amounts to nothing. The contest will also get you some traffic and visibility, so there is an additional bonus on top of the photos. Lonely Planet has run similar contests as well.
Many people simply don’t care. They aren’t serious photographers and if one of their photos does get used, then it is something they can brag about to their friends. Photography is also a field where even a total rank amateur can get lucky and get a great photo, even if they didn’t intend it. Put tens of millions of cameras in the hands of people and you’ll get some great photos even if the people with the cameras don’t know what they’re doing. If all the professional or serious amateur photographers out there avoid their contest, they can probably care less. They are working with the law of large numbers.
Not every photo contest has rules which are as onerous, however. Here is the money clause from the National Geographic 2009 International Photographer of the Year competition:
By entering the Contest, all entrants grant an irrevocable perpetual, nonexclusive license to Authorized Parties, to reproduce, distribute, display, and create derivative works of the entries (along with a name credit) in connection with the Contest and promotion of the Contest, in any media now or hereafter known, including, but not limited to: display at a potential exhibition of winners; publication of a book featuring select entries in the Contest; publication in National Geographic magazine or online highlighting entries or winners of the Contest.
This is much more reasonable. National Geographic doesn’t claim any rights to the image beyond the contest itself. Given National Geographic’s long history of sponsoring great photography, their rules don’t surprise me.
The takeaway is this: read the rules before you enter any contest. Know what you are giving up and what you are getting yourself into. Photography is very subjective and even if you think you have a photo that is sure to win, it probably wont. You might end up giving away the photo and never receiving so much as a “thank you” in return.