Photo Competitions: What Many Organisers Don’t Want You to Know

By Paul Painter

Photography competitions are everywhere. A quick Google search will reveal hundreds of them across the world in any given month. Fabulous, you might think. I’ll enter a few and hopefully get some recognition, win a prize, be able to call myself an award-winning photographer… So I’m preparing to send off some of my very best images when the terms and conditions catch my eye. Hold on a minute, what does, “you grant a perpetual and irrevocable right to use your images worldwide and in all media without further recompense to you” actually mean?

And herein lies the problem. Why is this company, organisation or individual really holding a competition? Is it because they’re passionate about visual imagery and wish to seek out and reward the best photography they can find? Or do they want to get their sticky mitts on your best images and then use them anywhere in the world, for any purpose they like, FOREVER AND FOR FREE? And you thought you were entering to win a shiny new gizmo or world recognition!  In fact in some cases you are being conned and in the worst cases completely and utterly ripped off whether you are a long in the tooth pro, a weekend warrior, a keen amateur or happy snapper.

Why is this so important?
Well I’ll let the World Intellectual Property Organization explain the purpose of copyright and related rights:

“The purpose of copyright and related rights is twofold: firstly to encourage a dynamic creative culture, while returning value to creators so that they can lead a dignified economic existence, and secondly to provide widespread, affordable access to content for the public”.

Please note that at no point is a distinction made as to whether you are an amateur or professional because it doesn’t matter.

Rights grabbing, the term given to such terms and conditions, seeks to take advantage of a dynamic creative culture without returning value to creators.

Not all contests do this, but those that do are in effect exploiting entrants, seeking to remove legal rights from them that are automatically granted by the law of all countries to their citizens in order that creative people can make a living from their creativity. Creativity is a very valuable commodity and the majority of the business world and publicly funded bodies have an endless need for it. Unfortunately some prefer to obtain it for nothing through devices such as photo competitions with ‘rights grabbing’ terms and conditions; this is an unethical practice that is indefensible.

Now to answer the question, why is this so important?
Because when people who create stuff aren’t being paid for what they created they can’t pay themselves or their employees, their suppliers, the bills, the rent and all the other people too numerous to mention and then they stop doing what they do and the creativity stops.  Now I’m not talking about mega stars or wealthy beyond your wildest dream pop stars here, it’s the person with a mortgage and a family to support, you know, the type of person who is your next door neighbour, and they are being ripped off because nobody wants to pay anymore.  

And because less money goes into the creative world, fewer people get trained, meaning fewer jobs, meaning less money to go round, meaning if you dreamt of assisting a pro, or growing your business, you can’t.  Not because there isn’t a need for the service, there’s a massive need, but very clever people with a very different agenda don’t want to pay for what they need and they are doing it by pulling the wool over your eyes and that’s the big problem.

What are these rights grab organisations doing with all these images and how are they getting value from them?  

Here are just a few options:

It could be as simple as their lawyers were just being fastidious and they have no intention of using your images for anything other than promoting their competition and drawing attention to themselves. If this is the case the terms of the competition should reflect the intent. In this situation a change in the terms alters nothing as far as the organisers are concerned and in fact can increase the number of entries and the exposure that the competition and the sponsors get.  

Use your images for a worldwide marketing campaign with no recognition or recompense and saving themselves thousands of pounds/dollars in the process and nothing going to the people who created the stuff.

You assign them your copyright (oh yes did I not mention that earlier, some really do take your copyright just by entering) and then do whatever they want with the image you took including reselling your images as stock and there is no law against it.  And if you now continue to display that image or use it personally or commercially, you are now breaking the law.

Oh and by the way you won’t be able to resell your award winning or even your award entered photograph to anyone else, ever!

So what can be done about the situation?
Well there are several things, firstly don’t enter competitions with bad T&Cs and furthermore, maybe email them the reason why you won’t be entering.  Secondly, tell as many people as you can about this, preferably people you know. People you don’t know will stare at you funny. Write about it in your blog and in forums.

What else can be done?
There’s one global organisation fighting this trend of poor terms and conditions for competitions and that’s Pro Imaging – the international web-based group of independent professional photographers. I’m a member, and I’m keen to promote them to fellow creatives as they campaign for the rights of photographers and also explain in simple terms the issues around copyright and licensing.

Check out their website

They have a list of good and bad competitions and loads of info on the Bill Of Rights, which is a framework of fair terms for both photographers and competition organisers.

Additionally they are now summoning the support of suppliers of photographic equipment to competitions to sign up to the Bill Of Rights and therefore not supply competitions with prizes that don’t comply.  So if you see a sponsor supplying a kit to a rights grab competition, please tell them that you’re not impressed, point them in our direction and hopefully and gradually we can change this abominable situation for all photographers and creatives, whether pro or amateur.

If you’re a full time pro please sign up to Pro Imaging directly and give us a hand, there are thousands of competitions worldwide and only a few of us.

Also whether you are pro or amateur, please sign up to our fan page on facebook and show your support.  It can be found here:

And watch your back if you’re entering any competitions!

Paul Painter is a commercial photographer specialising in Architecture, Interiors and Lifestyle work.  His studio is based in Birmingham UK and he travels throughout Europe on commission.  Paul is one of a small group of competition administrators for Pro Imaging who manage the campaign for fairer terms and conditions for all photographic competitions.

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Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

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