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The Dangers of Photo Contests

While browsing online, you stumble across a photo contest. The prizes draw you in — a safari trip to South Africa, a brand-new, top-of-the-line dSLR, $5000 cash. All you have to do is enter a photo that roughly matches the categories outlined in the contest brief (and occasionally, pay an entry fee). Why wouldn’t you enter?

It’s true that photo contests can have rewards at no cost. For instance, National Geographic runs multiple photo contests every year, through their main brand and National Geographic Traveller. I’ve entered a few times, and while I’ve never won anything, National Geographic did choose one of my entries as their Photo of the Day, which resulted in more comments and publicity than I’d ever had before. 

A Not Too Foggy Night

My photo that was featured as National Geographic's "Photo of the Day."

Similarly, I’ve always enjoyed entering the photo contests of the photography group I’ve done quite a few workshops with. It wasn’t about winning, but about sharing photos and getting constructive criticism — and just as importantly, about seeing the amazing photos that other people came up with!

Plus, while you may have a photo that exactly matches the photo contest’s brief, you may not. Where you may not have had the motivation before, you now have a reason to go out and try street photography or nighttime long exposures. You never know — you may fall in love with a whole new area of photography that you’d never given a thought to previously.

But still, is it worth it? It depends on the terms and conditions for the contest. Every contest has subtly different terms, so I recommend always reading the terms carefully. If you don’t, you may find out later that they said:

“By entering, you grant The Washington Post permission to use your photo in perpetuity in any medium, including to edit, publish, distribute and republish it in any form. Photographers retain the copyright to their images.” (from the terms and conditions for the Washington Post’s currently running Travel Photo Contest)

This means that the promoter of the contest can use your image forever without paying you a cent or even recognising that you were the photographer.Personally, I wouldn’t want that. I’m not a professional photographer, but I still don’t like helping a large corporation promote their own brand without any benefit for me. Promote their photo contest for next year? Sure. Promoting whatever they may feel like in the future? No thanks. Even if I’d taken the photo solely for the purpose of the contest, it’s still my photo and my creativity and effort that went into producing it.

I was recently caught out by some very draconian terms in the Samsung ‘Australia in 24 Hours’ Project. I really liked the idea of the project; 24 daily winners were given a Samsung point-and-shoot with which they spent May 31st snapping photos of their vision of Australia. I thought it would be interesting to get out there and try to get as many images of Australian daily life in one day as I could. As it turned out, the chosen photographers shot some amazing images that really captured the spirit of daily life in Oz.

The Observers

One of the photos that I entered in the 'Australia in 24 Hours' Project.

I made sure to read the terms and conditions of the contest prior to entering through Samsung’s Facebook page, and I was surprised when I didn’t find any terms that I didn’t like. It all seemed too reasonable, but I thought I’d give it a shot anyway and entered five of my favourite images of Australia. It was only when someone pointed this out on their wall that I realised I’d made a horrible mistake:

Such a shame to read your terms and conditions to see that just by entering your competition means signing away all rights to the photo/s entered. I hope all the other people that have entered some truly wonderful photos realise this is the case, particularly those that have entered shots of their family members.” (Rachel Willis, Samsung Australia Facebook page)

Upon going back and combing through the terms carefully, I found that the wall commenter was right. One sentence, buried in the middle of a paragraph, stated that:

“10 (e) if they are the owner of the photograph, the entrant agrees to assign all rights, title and interest (including pursuant to the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth.)) in and to their entry to the Promoter and, if applicable, consents to any use of their entry which may otherwise infringe their moral rights pursuant to the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth.).”

This meant that the five photos I’d entered — five photos that I am very proud of, one of which has even been printed on canvas and hung on a wall in our office — were no longer mine. By entering, I’d agreed that Samsung could not only use that photo to promote themselves in perpetuity, but that they now owned my photo. What did this mean? Could Samsung possibly start sending me cease & desist notices for using my photos elsewhere (not that they could do this without creating a PR disaster)?

A Fisherman's Sunset

Another daily life photo that I entered in Samsung's competition.

I won’t lie, I had a freak out moment. Why had I been such an idiot? Why did I think the 24 Hours Project was worth it? So I posted on Samsung’s wall, and when I didn’t get a reply, posted again a few days later. I wanted to speak to someone that could tell me exactly what was going to happen from here, and I wanted to have a full copy of the terms & conditions because they were no longer available anywhere on the web (they’d taken them down and Google unfortunately doesn’t cache apps in Facebook).

Then I got a surprise. Samsung replied to my post, saying they were actively working to find someone that could answer my questions. A few days later, I got an email with a phone number and a request to chat about my situation. Anticipating the worst, I dialed the number and waited.

The conversation that followed was wholly reasonable. Samsung’s representative explained that the legal department required those terms but that the photos would only be used in the ‘occasional promotion.’ She gave me the option to remove them completely from the contest as though they had never been entered, which I took. She then sent me confirmation of all photos that had been removed and a full copy of their terms and conditions.

In short, I was lucky. Samsung is a big corporation, and while one customer could kick up a stink, I’m still one customer in a horde. They could have ignored my requests for more information; they could have left me hanging, wondering if one day, they’d find a campaign which one of my photos suited perfectly and I would only find out when it was plastered on a bus stop (sort of like this poor girl who had her photos stolen from Flickr by Virgin Mobile).

Even if the photo contest promoters aren’t specifically trying to screw over the photographer — which they usually aren’t, as my conversation with Samsung showed — if the photographer has agreed to those conditions, it leaves them open to all sorts of issues in the future. And the problem is that most people aren’t even aware of it.

So I’m not telling you not to ever enter photo contests. They can be very rewarding and could possibly open up a world of opportunities for you. Just make sure that you know your rights so you don’t find yourself in a situation where someone is taking advantage of you and your photos.

Have you ever had a bad experience with a photo contest?

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