Are You Gambling With Your Copyright By Entering That Photography Contest?

By Dave Rein

"Winner, winner, chicken dinner!"  I'm told that the phrase first started in Las Vegas casinos where you would hear gamblers and dealers yell it out  as winners would earn enough from their bets to buy the three-piece chicken special at the casinos.  Whatever its origins, the phrase makes me smile after hearing it.  

Thoughts of winning one of the countless photography contests also brings a smile to many as well -- amateurs and professionals alike.  Who wouldn't like to win a Canon 5D Mark II or maybe that lens you've been eying?  Before sending the kids out to lure the buffalo herd a little closer to get that winning shot, you might want to do some reading.

Reading, as in reading those pesky rules or what is usually called "terms and conditions."  The terms vary from a photographer giving the promoter a non-exclusive right to use the photograph for a limited purpose and limited period of time to granting the promoter all the rights in your photograph.  Of course, if you care to give the promoter all of the rights to your photograph, you might consider taking it off of your website and stop selling those signed prints because you might get sued!

Far fetched?  Gary Crabee wrote in his Enlightened Images photoblog about Costco's photo contest in which, by entering the contest, the contestants assign the copyright to any image to Costco.  Costco is not alone.  There may be questions of the enforceability of the clause, but Gary is right that Costco and others with these terms arguably can sue any contestant who continues to reproduce or distribute what used to be the contestant's own photograph!  I like to think that Costco would not enforce the full-extent of the assignment, but do you gamble on that by entering one of your bread-and-butter photographs in the contest?  By assigning all your rights, stock agencies like Getty Images are also not likely to accept your photograph.  Presto!  You've just deprived you of another source of income.

Most contests don't require the photographer to assign all of his or her rights, yet the terms and conditions can still be fairly broad.  In Walt Disney's Messy Baby Contest, you grant Disney the right to use your photograph throughout the "universe" in "perpetuity" although you have the right to use the photography as well.  I'm at a bit of a loss in calculating the going rate for using an Ansel Adams photograph on Saturn or elsewhere in the universe.  But if you have a gem on your hands, do you think you can compete with Disney's marketing muscle here on Earth?  Sorry, but my money is on Disney. 

So what can you do to protect yourself before entering a contest?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Read --the terms and conditions of the contest;
  2. Examine -- by following any links on the terms and conditions to see if there are any buried terms.
  3. Think -- before entering a contest where you assign "all the intellectual property rights",  grant "exclusive rights" or "perpetual rights";
  4. Consider recommendations -- by Pro-Imaging and others who monitor these contests.  Pro-Imaging, for example, uses its photographer's Bill of Rights to develop a list of "bad" contests and list of "good" contests

Armed with a little information, you can avoid the "sucker's bet" and call out with the rest of the contestants:  "Winner, winner, chicken dinner!"