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Why I Don’t Enter Photography Contests

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If you want to use my photos, at least give me more than a losing lottery ticket

I often get sent links from readers about various photos contests they think I should enter. It is flattering that they think my works is good enough to win, but the fact is I never enter photo contests. Never.

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.

  • 22 Comments... What's your take?

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Comments

  1. Seriously? Read closely. Both contracts in both contests say the same thing. Except that NG actively sells your photos without compensation. And.. more importantly… we should expect better from NG. It’s basically theft.

  2. Molly says:

    Excellent post. I had not realized that guidebook publishers use contests to gain free righs to submitted photos and they should all be shot. Aren’t they the ones paying qualified writers to travel around and take photos as well as fill out their guidebook info?

  3. Emily says:

    Gary, I feel like an idiot, but I never stopped to really read the fine print and realize that’s what photo contests were all about. Seems like such a scam. I agree with Nico–that stinks that it’s taking away work from professional photographers. Now I’ll definitely think twice before entering a photo contest.

  4. Bluria says:

    Usually creative work, like art photography is not payed at the value which pieces of art are. It counts fame, celebrity and is very difficult to be know today where there are so many artists. You must be very good, but also lucky.

  5. Trista says:

    Well, I guess that means I’m only going to enter the Nat Geo contests, of which there are many. Thanks for the insight Gary.

  6. That indeed is a easy way for a company to get a lot of cheap images!

  7. ken zirkel says:

    Funny thing is, the economics of that kind of photo contest don’t really work so well anymore. Not when you can buy fine stock photography for $10 or less, or even free on Flickr.

  8. Asha says:

    The rights grab is inexcusable. However, $5,000 is a lot of money…What if you were to watermark the images you entered into the contest? The images would not be usable by Frommer’s in that form, and if they request unaltered photos, you would then be in a position to say yes only if you were chosen as the winner.

  9. Greg says:

    THE IRREVOCABLE RIGHTS OF YOUR PROPERTY CANNOT BE REVOKED. IN OTHER WORDS YOUR RIGHTS CANNOT BE WRITTEN OFF BY A PIECE OF PAPER.INTELLECTUAL LAW CLEARLY STATES THESE ISSUES CONCERNING PHOTOGRAPHS. THE BIG HUSTLE COMES WHEN THE ORGANIZATIONS OF THESE PALTRY OFFERINGS PLAY ON PEOPLES STUPIDITY AND HUBRIS EXPECTING THEM TO BE IGNORANT OF THE LAW. BEST NOT TO BOTHER WITH WEENIES, ESPECIALLY IF YOUR A COMMERCIAL PHOTOGRAPHER, IT SIMPLY GOES AGAINST THE POINT OF THE EXERCISE WINNING MONEY. PRESTIGIOUS AWARDS SUCH AS HASSELBLAD AND SONY ARE THE BEST AND DO OFFER REAL RECOGNITION AND MONEY ETC, SELECTION OF SHOWS IS IMPORTANT ALONG WITH BEING ORIGINAL AND UNIQUE POV.

  10. Lipe says:

    I do think the users fee would be the right thing to do this keeps the less serious contenders out..

  11. Margaret says:

    This kind of contest has been around for as long as I can remember… but what I’m not clear on is whether Frommers (and others) credit the person who took the shot, or if it just goes down as another anonymous photo! I’m sure many people starting out would be willing to give up their shots for photo credits!

    • ken zirkel says:

      Photo credits are pretty much worthless. I can’t imagine there is much of a chance of landing a paying job because a client saw their photo credit in a Frommers guide.

  12. This is a interesting issue. What I feel it comes down to is that most amateurs don’t care about licensing. The huge majority of “photographers” just happen to have a nice camera. The high-resolution of the DSLRs sold these days makes it easier than ever to get a professional-looking shot, if it’s composed well. Put one of the thousands of brand new DSLRs in the hands of an amateur, and put those hands in places people never used to go (which is more and more likely) and every once in a while a photo will turn out guidebook quality. Like you say, it’s a matter of large numbers.

    Amateur photogs, me included, would be happy to give away their rights to feel the pleasure of seeing one of their photos in a guidebook regardless of what happens to it if it doesn’t.

    I think the real travesty is to the photographers who make their living off of selling their work. Those innumerable well-choreographed amateur photos will end up taking bread off the tables of those folks that did what they did for pay. No company in their right minds will pay for something they can get for free.

    On the bright side, the professional shooters now have to raise the bar to maintain their relevance. Their determination to stay ahead of the game is giving the world some amazing photography!

    Thanks for the post!

  13. Ryan says:

    You get the same sort of economics with logo contests, battle-s of the bands, etc.

    pretty much this:
    http://greyscalegorilla.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/workforfree.jpg

  14. Dave says:

    Thanks for bringing this up again. One reason I don’t enter photo contests are as a result of your posts on the subject in the past, plus I’m lazy, and too cheap. :)

  15. Jason Nugent says:

    Gary — one of the things that the Nat Geo contest does make the users do is pay a fee, per image entered. It’s like $15, for each photo. While they may not have as draconian a user agreement, they probably feel good about the amount of money they make by running the contest.

    Most bigger photo contests are like this, and $15 is on the low end of the scale. I’ve seen photo contests with fees much higher.

    • Gary says:

      So, the light at the end of the tunnel is really a train?

      I think making people pay $15 upfront is a more honest approach than keeping the rights to everything.

      I’m considering running a similar contest on my site where I’ll buy a winner a Powerball ticket. I’ll claim that people who enter the contest have a chance to win $25,000,000.

  16. It certainly makes business sense to include a rights grab in the T&Cs for a competition. I’m not sure it’s good in the long run though.

    Firstly, I wonder how well the provisions of a term hidden deep in the legalese would hold up if they’re sued. This is especially given that most contestants would be considered unsophisticated and as such not deemed to fully understand what they’re agreeing to.

    Secondly, if your company actually wants great photography and high-quality submissions from around the world, recognizing talent and effort by using only limited rights would seem better. As you mention, you don’t participate for this reason, and I’m sure many professionals / skilled amateurs feel the same way.

    I’ve run competitions like this myself, and with T&Cs like NG more or less, for these reasons.

    • Gary says:

      If there is a legal problem I think it comes from the fact that there is really no consideration given to the photographer. (Consideration is what is necessary for there to be a valid contract. Both parties have to get something). If it is valid, then you could just give away lottery tickets.

      • Sean says:

        The chance to win is probably sufficient consideration. The only requirement is that the consideration induce the bargain (and be legal, of course). Frommer’s gets the rights to your picture, you get the right to enter the contest.

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About Gary Arndt

My name is Gary Arndt. In March 2007 I set out to travel around the world...
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