In the October/November 2013 issue of Photo Life, I don’t believe it was by accident that the noted photojournalist Patrice Halley wrote in his inaugural column—”Tales from the Field”—an awareness feature on photo contests. In his article, Patrice raised five very important questions that you should be able to comfortably answer before entering.
I would like to explore these ideas a little more and try to explain why and how photo contests have become a means to an end for the hosts of those contests.
I participated in my first capacity as a judge for a national photo contest in, I think, 1994 for a magazine called Photo Digest—the forerunner of Photo Life. This was at a time when print media was the primary vehicle to present your pictures to the viewing public. Contests at that time provided the contest’s host and corporate sponsors the right to reproduce winning entries for the purpose of promoting future contests; this is understandable considering the sponsors had invested in the contest by offering prizes. I cannot recall a contest that retained rights or reproduced entries in perpetuity.
In the late 1990s to mid-2000s along came the perfect recipe to adjust, amend, and “season to taste” the contest entry requirements.
The primary reason for the shift away from “winning entries permit the sponsors to reproduce…” to
“By entering the contest, you retain the rights to your works while granting (sponsor’s name deleted) the unrestricted, royalty-free, perpetual right to use, reproduce, communicate, modify and display the works (in whole or in part) for any purpose without any fee or other form of compensation, and without further notification or permission,…”
was a simple matter of economics. With print media giving way to digital media, the company hosting the contest had to feed a hungry beast looking for content update on a daily basis, and that is one expensive proposition.
Now let’s be honest—photographers are generally a vain lot (yes, several decades later I still enjoy seeing my credit in certain publications as well), and it didn’t take long for users of images to capitalize on that vanity. The contest rules now introduced some mumbo-jumbo that a large percentage of entrants did not understand. In addition, contest hosts, when challenged, would say the contest was to support charity work and provide an opportunity to have your work seen, or other rhetoric along those lines. To that, I respond hogwash!
The reality is: remember that hungry beast that is going to require at least one image per week, and more than likely one image per day? Well, if it was one image uploaded per week, it would be very unusual to have 52 winning entries and as such there would be a content shortfall. Daily uploads requiring 365 images per year would never be satisfied by winning entries, hence the requirement to take ownership of a license from all entries as opposed to the earlier winning entries.
What is the cost?
The license contest hosts usually seek—which are unrestricted—typically would cost $400, on average, for commercial uses. With this in mind, it could be argued that a very modest contest that drew 1000 entries was in essence saving itself thousands of dollars in content fees.
Entrants are free to do as they wish, but at the same time photo contest hosts should be honest and speak in plain language why they are hosting a contest. If they are truly interested in supporting photography as a hobby and have an interest in enhancing the craft of photography, there is absolutely no need for such a license to provide them with the right to use, sell and otherwise distribute your picture whether it won a prize or not. If the contest host really has no ulterior motive then they should have no issue with considering such a license that retains a usage of winning entries only, and most importantly, has a license expiry date. There is absolutely no need for the contest host to require your picture forever and a day.
Goodness, even your driver’s license has an expiry date.