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The Fine Print of Photo Contest Rules

By July 16, 2021No Comments
A photo of a colorful dawn sky in the distance. In the foreground is a placid river with a few trees on the opposite bank. Sunrise over the Pocomoke River on Maryland's Eastern Shore. © Frank Gallagher
Sunrise over the Pocomoke River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. © Frank Gallagher

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

It must be photo contest season. Hardly a day goes by without me seeing at least one notification about an upcoming photography competition. Some have substantial prizes, others offer recognition and exposure. Are they worth it? And what are you getting yourself into? The answers are in the fine print. You do read all the contest rules, don’t you?

There are a lot of photo contests out there, and many good reasons to enter. Anyone who sells or licenses their images or thinks they might sell or license images, however, ought to be spending a lot of time with the fine print. Some contests offer terrific prizes and the chance for prestigious recognition of and exposure for your work. Others seem more like a rights grab, a way for an entity to gather a photo library by asking artists to give up all rights to their own photos. With some of the worst offenders, you not only give up rights to your own work, you don’t even get photo credit when the sponsor uses your photos!

Time for me to do a little homework.

A screenshot of the webpage of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Photo Contest. The header to the webpage has a photo of birds on a beach. Amid the text on the webpage is a photo of a red morph eastern screech owl looking out from a tree cavity.
Maryland Department of Natural Resources Photo Contest (screenshot)

I recently received a notice from Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) advertising their 2022 photo contest. Winning images appear in the department’s annual calendar, and there are a variety of prizes offered, from cash and state park passes to copies of the resulting calendar. The next day, I got one from Outdoor Photographer about a Bird Portrait Photo Contest from BirdWatching magazine & Madavor Media. This one has entry fees but offers cash, photo gear (including a camera, lens and various Gura Gear products), publication in BirdWatching magazine and website, BirdWatching memberships, and other perks.

After Sean Fitzgerald, co-chair of NANPA’s Advocacy Committee, wrote about a photo campaign by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) with some problematic rules and, after New York’s Museum of Modern Art started a #MoMAPhotoClub with very troubling language on photo rights, I wanted to take a close look at the fine print.

Fitzgerald advised looking for rules and terms that:

  • Ask for “a reasonable and non-exclusive license to use images rather than blanket relinquishment of ownership, copyright, and moral rights;”
  • Specify how images will be used (e.g. promotional and/or commercial), in what mediums (e.g. print, internet, social media, etc.), and for how long;
  • Provide the submitting photographers with any tangible benefit, including at least a promise of a proper photo credit for any usage.

So, how do these contests stack up? Here’s what Maryland’s DNR says:

“Photographers authorize the department to distribute their image(s) for non-commercial purposes with photo credits—including but not limited to education and news purposes—to other media, print, digital, online services, and television for their use. Photographers retain copyright to these photos, the above agreed to permissions not withstanding.*

“*Per our terms, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources may post photos online—including the department’s website and social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr—after the contest. Do not embed any nonessential personal data (metadata) into your files.”

Check and check. Photographers retain the rights to their images and will be credited any time DNR uses their image. And the DNR is only asking for limited, non-commercial rights, though there is no time limit mentioned. Compare that to the original rules of the New Jersey DFW campaign, where photographers relinquished all rights to photos they submitted, forever, and can’t even display the photos on their own website. There is no promise of photo credits, no payment or prizes, and the department could pretty much do what it wants with the photos. Note that, after being contacted by Fitzgerald, the DFW was receptive to making changes to the rules and the campaign has, as of today, been removed from the division’s website.

Screenshot of the webpage for the Bird Portrait Photo Contest . The page includes the logo of the contest, a silhouette of a songbird, as well as some text.
Bird Portrait Photo Contest (screenshot)

Here’s the relevant part of the Bird Portrait Photo Contest rules:

“By submitting an entry, entrant grants the Sponsors and their designees an irrevocable, royalty-free, nonexclusive, worldwide perpetual license to use the entry and his/her name, city and state of residence for credit purposes in Sponsors’ online galleries, without further compensation, notification or permission, unless prohibited by law. In addition, each winner grants to the Sponsors and their designees an irrevocable, royalty-free, nonexclusive, worldwide perpetual license to use and distribute the entry (as submitted, or as cropped by the Sponsors), and his/her name, city and state of residence for credit purposes, in any and all media now or hereafter known, including without limitation in BirdWatching and any Madavor Media magazines for purposes of promotion of this Contest except as otherwise stated herein, without further compensation, notification or permission, unless prohibited by law.”

Lots of legal terminology to protect and give the sponsors flexibility, but that’s becoming pretty standard in contests these days and, like many contests, the license you give them is perpetual. However, the photographers will be given credit anytime their photos are used, which is good, and the prizes are substantial. The rules give the sponsors the right to use photos in the contest gallery, in their magazines, on their websites, and in other media “for purposes of promotion of this Contest.” I can live with that.

Contrast that with MoMA’s terms, which include expansive language and assume anyone using the specific hashtag is intending to enter the contest.

“By tagging photos using #MoMAPhotoClub, you grant The Museum of Modern Art (“MoMA”) (and those authorized by MoMA) a royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual, sublicensable, non-exclusive license to publicly display, distribute, reproduce, and create derivative works of such photos, in whole or in part (including, but not limited to, any associated captions and handles), in any media now existing or later developed, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and promotion, and inclusion on MoMA’s website and social media channels.

“Nothing in the permissions we ask for takes away your rights to your tagged photos. These permissions, or license, do two things: acknowledge your rights to your photos, and make it possible for us to share your photos with the world. We won’t sell your photos, or seek or receive any compensation for promoting your amazing submissions to the #MoMAPhotoClub challenges.”

As Fitzgerald put it, “Their photo club is basically a rights grab in which they assume rather expansive rights to images posted with the tags “#MoMAPhotoClub” … In other words, MoMA claims the right to do pretty much anything they want, anywhere they want, any time they want with any photos that include that particular tag (except to “sell” it).

“There are countless problems here,” he continued “but several are particularly galling. The first is that there is no assurance that anyone who tags in image with that tag has any idea of what MoMA claims it can then do with that image. In contract terminology, there is no assurance that any ‘meeting of the minds” has taken place. As anyone who’s has posted images to social media knows, tags float around everywhere, get auto populated in all kinds of ways, and it is easy to see how someone might add that tag simply as a way to get more likes on a particular social media channel and without any idea of that the MoMA Photo Club really is or the expansive rights MoMA is attempting to grab.

“A second big problem,” Fitzgerald said, “is that they think that because of a social media tag, they can then copy that image and use it outside of that social media channel, including on their own website, on a totally separate social media site, and even in ads, billboards, and anywhere else they want (as long as they dont sell” it).

You’d expect better from a museum.

In photo contests, as in life, caveat emptor, or buyer beware! If you want to know more about what to watch out for in contest rules, take a look at Bernard Friel’s article in NANPA’s Contest Secrets handbook.

Then give your eyes a rest from fine print and contest rules and get outside to shoot some contest-worthy images!

 Frank Gallagher headshotFrank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photography services to nonprofit organizations. He manages NANPA’s blog.

Facebook: @FGFStop
Instagram: @frankgallagherfoto