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|| News Item: Posted 2004-10-15

Some Contests Byte
By Vincent Laforet, The New York Times

I'm willing to guess that many of you have at one time or another received e-mail and snail-mail solicitations to enter photo contests. I think that either my subscribing to Photo District News magazine or leaving my business card at one of those photo shows did me in --- I get dozens a year --- most from publications or organizations I've never heard of.

A few months ago I received a letter from an organization that I'll call BYTES that told me that for a mere $35.00 per entry (!) I could enter for the chance to "Be part of the world's most respected photo annual." The entry fee isn't what stopped me in my tracks - what did catch my attention was that out of the three columns of text on the solicitation page - an entire column of italicized text was comprised of legal mumbo-jumbo. As I read - I wondered if these guys were yanking my (our) chain.

First of all the contest asks you to enter "actual prints or 2 chromes in top-loading sleeves." That's the first thing that miffed me, presumably you're going to try and submit a good quality chrome or print if you actually decide to enter and that sure ain't cheap. Let's say (not counting the time and effort it takes you) that's already close to $20 per entry and probably more. It also says that "digital files will be accepted with 8 x 11-inch color match proofs" - uh - so what's the point of that? Are they going to judge off of the digital file - or do you need to spend a lot to get a good match proof? (I don't even consider entering competitions that don't accept digital entries anymore.)

Next came the categories: Architecture / Automotive / Digital / Beauty-Fashion / Flowers (!) / Food & Beverage (!!!) / Interiors (wow the excitement the judges must experience in judging that one) / Journalism / Landscapes / Nudes (well…never mind) / Portraits / Products / Sports / Still Life / Transportation / Wildlife / and my favorite: "Other: - you fill in the blank….)

These categories alone tell me this ain't no serious competition, this doesn't really even sound like a competition at all - if you can fill out your own category… invent one that no one else thinks of (i.e. Trent Nelson could have fun with that one) and guess - what - you're the Winnnaaaa!!!

So what am I really entering? What is the prize???

Well it turns out - that this is not your typical competition - they do say that you need to enter a caption sheet for "judging purposes" - but these people are not going to give you a prize - they are simply going to publish your photos in their book… that's what you'll pay $35 per entry for the possible "honor" of being published in their book… so are these people really judges or should we call them book editors? And if that's not enough of a kick in the head - the winners will be listed "six to eight months" after the submission deadlines!

OK - so regardless of the fact that preparing contest entries every year is something I look forward to as much as looking through the FunPix section, it's gonna take a real big prize to entice me to enter - given my chances of winning a SINGLE Grand prize (for the entire competition) when hundreds of people enter numerous categories. Basically your odds are worse than playing Russian Roulette…at least then your odds of winning are 5 out of six. But in this case the only honor you'll received is that you'll be published… something feels a little wrong to me here… let's see:

1. I'm going to spend a few hundred bucks to buy a list of thousands of photographers' names, e-mails and addresses from some organization.

2. I'm going send out invitations to them that make them feel like they're part of an elite few.

3. I'm going to ask them to spend anywhere from $55 to a few hundred dollars to prepare their entries and submit them.

4. And then I'm going to put a book out - and sell it. And I don't have to pay for a single photograph!

5. Hey those people can even spend more of their hard-earned money and buy a book from me in a year!

6. Come on people!!!!

But it doesn't end there - and this is where you need to read the fine print - if there's any point to this article (any point at all!) it's to get you to read the fine print - here are a few actual excepts:

"All materials that accompany or form part of an Entry will become the sole property of BYTES. Accordingly, BYTES will not return any items entered and will not be responsible for their loss or damage."

Man - bummer - you mean I don't get those nice custom lab prints back???

"License: By submitting an Entry the Entrant hereby grants BYTES, its agents and assigns irrevocable, royalty free, non-exclusive license throughout the world to publish and use the Entry in any BYTES publication, advertisement, marketing or promotional material, by any means BYTES chooses, including without limitation to print, electronic media and broadcast."

I can imagine Rick Rickman dizzily grasping his chest right about now - as his heart momentarily stops - and his face turns beat read.

"Ignoraminouses!" he might say, "don't you all see you're giving them the right to do anything they want with your photos!!!!"

Because you are.

Although you're not losing your copyright (that's what the 'non-exclusive' part means in the mumbo jumbo) and are free to continue doing what you wish with the photo you submitted - so are they! And we're not just talking for the book you're submitting to.

You could theoretically be walking up Times Square one day and look up to see one giant billboard of one of your images. And they wouldn't owe you a single cent for it. Nada. After all - who are the BYTES' "agents" they mentioned - there's no way for you to know.

Five years from now you could be perusing the magazine aisle at your local Starbucks sucking down an overpriced Frapuccino and stop to see one of your entries on one of the covers of another "BYTES" magazine (or on one of the sports anthologies on the bookshelves)- again - you get nada. Or your scenic shot of a Hawaii beach could end up in the airline travel brochure in the seat back in front of you, because BYTES also has an agent that sells stock photography. Once again: Zip. Don't forget there's also the Internet and television…

While the chances of some of the above examples actually taking place is unlikely - it's important to know that you are leaving the door wide open to such abuses of your work and/or copyright. It's important to read the fine print when you enter any competition - and look to make sure that your work will only be used as part of that competition's book or website - and perhaps even for promotional pieces for next year's competition… nothing more.

And should BYTES get sued for whatever reason (someone doesn't like your photo, or you forgot to get a model release for a journalism image that is eventually mistakenly used in some other commercial venue that BYTES chooses) you as the entrant "agree to indemnify BYTES and to hold it harmless from any costs, expenses or damages, including court costs and reasonable attorney's fees…."

When you think about it - it's quite impossible to assume responsibility for any potential lawsuit that may arise from the publication of your work - when you're not even sure where or how it will be published.

Lastly - and this is the kicker "BYTES further reserves the right, for any reason, not to publish the book for which the Call of Entries was intended."

So in case you had any doubts - even if they don't publish an annual and you fail to be included in the "world's most respected photo annual" (Awe shucks!) You've still given the right to publish your photo in any medium they choose.

It's important to note that many competitions have similar legal disclaimers - and most of the legal spaghetti is simply there for them to simply cover their backs. Nonetheless - consider your rights, the value of your photographs, and the rights you are giving others when you enter any competition. When you weigh the advantages vs. the potential rewards - the balance is really not in your favor. Not by a long shot.

Personally, I tend to steer away from competitions that have high entry fees - especially per-entry fees. A $20 to $50 entry fee for the entire submission seems OK to me as far as covering judging expenses (they have to rent a room somewhere, fly in judges, feed them, hire a book designer (and pay them! Some of you will know what I'm referring to here,) and publish a book. Unless you're entering one of the smaller competitions - they should be publishing a book with your fees - and send it to you for free. What I'm getting at is that your entry fees alone shouldn't be subsidizing half of a judge's airline ticket... or worse making a greedy publisher rich.

All in all - you should never forget that competitions and their results are incredibly subjective (just look at the winners of the two big national competitions [most people enter both] and the winning entries in one competition don't even place in the other)- and that no matter how good your work may be - the odds are especially slim for you to win a "grand prize." After all - how is a judge supposed to pick a grand winner from the following two categories: "Nudes" and "Flowers." It's kind of like playing the lottery - unless your last name is Mapplethorpe.

(Vincent Laforet is a staff photographer with the New York Times and has entered... and won a contest or two. He is an occasional contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter.)

Related Links:
Vince Laforet's member page

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