Photography Contests: License to Steal?

As digital cameras and online photo-sharing spur greater interest in photography among hobbyists, I’ve followed a trend that I find increasingly disturbing: photo contests that reward you by stealing your photos.

Camera manufacturers, major airlines, and other high-profile companies have staged contests offering meager prizes — and burying in the fine print that by entering the contest you agree:

  • to grant the contest organizers all rights to reproduce your pictures; and
  • that the organizers may use your pictures with no guarantee of a byline or credit.
  • As a photography instructor, I recently learned of a contest for California community college students called College Seen. It’s sponsored by the Foundation for California Community Colleges, which has a Web site illustrated by College Seen entries. The foundation declares as its mission to develop “programs and services that save millions of dollars for colleges and students.”

    With budget cuts and layoffs, most of California’s colleges and universities have done away with staff photographers. But the Foundation for California Community Colleges still has a need for pictures. Preferably, free ones.

    The Fine Print

    Here’s the fine print for College Seen, Rule #6, Conditions of Participation:

    By entering this competition, you agree that the Foundation retains the right to unlimited use of the submitted photographs for Foundation publicity, promotion, and advertising purposes, without compensation.

    Name recognition will be given to the photographer when possible, but is not guaranteed.

    As a condition of participation, you waive any claim of infringement against the Foundation based upon use of the submitted photograph, and agree to hold the Foundation harmless from any claims or expenses arising as a result of any allegation that you did not own or were not authorized to allow publication and reproduction of the photograph.

    I understand most of the conditions. I also understand that a $500 cash prize, along with the potential exposure of winning, can be nice motivators for student photographers.

    But explicitly not guaranteeing a byline or name recognition for student submissions? That is downright offensive, particularly coming from a organization created to support the educational system.

    How can I in good conscience encourage my students to participate in a contest that doesn’t promise to give them credit for their work?

    Using someone’s work without attribution in writing circles has a name; it’s called plagiarism. Shouldn’t the rules be the same when it’s a picture?

12 Responses to “Photography Contests: License to Steal?”

  1. Although reprehensible, this is not new. I remember an article in Popular Photography in the 1970's about the same issue with Kodak and other contests. The author included a photo taken at a car race with a car exactly upside down in mid-air. His contention was that as an amateur he would have turned over rights to this photo to enter the contest. Instead, it had earned him much more than the top prize.

    The internet should make it much easier now for the budding pro to commercialize their work.

    I would hope that the lack of byline clause is just protection and not policy. If you sign up for the contest, you sign away your rights so it wouldn't be plagiarism. You've given them the right to use it without byline. However, one of the basic rules of good business is to always give credit where it is due.

  2. Yes, the rules should be the same. Bt at the same time, further proof that photographers are their own worst enemies -- not only do they eat their own young, they encourage others to eat them as well! We compete with each other to the edge of suicide, as a profession.

  3. Absolutely Peter, more and more companies have realised they can not only glean good advertising from the competition contest itself but also from the winning entry, it's virtually image ownership for $500. Unfortunately it's not plagiarism in these cases (and the rules are the same for images),
    as long as they have a agreed condition of participation, they can do whatever the hell they like! I guess avoiding the companies who offer no recognition is the only way but not everyone may realise they are being taken advantage of.

  4. Thanks for chiming in Steve, Ian & Adrian. I tell my students that if they enter this competition, just because they don't win, it doesn't mean their pictures won't get used.

    They most likely will and with no byline. The fine print already says so.

    The kicker is: this is from the official website of a higher educational institution?

    For my part, I'm educating my students how not to become their own worse enemy, one student at a time.

  5. This has always been there. Our capitalistic economy has people always coming up with ways they can make and save money, which often puts another at risk.

    Just because people offer something legal doesn't make it a fair deal for everyone.

    If we were all required to pass a class in the how just to do a home budget for a HS degree we would help many in our society realize these offers which they only loose in accepting.

    Thanks for reminding us of this still continuing.

  6. Unfortunately, this type of downward slide has taken place for years... it sucks, quite frankly, and the crappy economy doesn't help. Most organizations do not value photography, as the massive proliferation of web imagery serves to contribute to this false perception of worthlessness. Ninety-eight percent of the time, If I quote a price for a stock photo that is anywhere near the actual realistic worth of the image, I don't even get so much as a call back... if its not free or close to it, they don't want to play. Nice world.

  7. As a hobbyist looking to gain more knowledge and experience, I appreciate all of the comments from everyone. I am reminded to read the small print of ALL documents.

  8. We hear you too. On Twitc you can add IPTC to your photos and add your own watermark. In addition, you can choose not to have your album publicly available. Not too many other photo sites let you do that especially when they are letting you post and storage images for free. We love Twitter and support open social networking, but we draw the line when it comes to your intellectual property. We are setting up the Twitc Pro service soon where you can sell prints or license your stock photos or video. You heard it here first. But until then, yes, we have a photo contest and we won't steal your stuff 😉

  9. Great write up. It is very unfortunate that we eat our young. 🙂

    Given the fact that many universities are liberal temples, it seems such a contradiction of what they preach vs. what they do. I guess it would be an appropriate motto for them to be... "Do as I say, not as I do."

  10. You're article provides excellent advice - ALWAYS READ THE FINE PRINT. But,don't assume all contest are designed to take unfair advantage. There are plenty of contest that afford photographers the opportunity to get paid and receive proper credit and recognition for their work. In fact, a contest can be a great resource for photographers to have a marketable outlet for their product. The question should always be asked "How is my image going to be used and are they paying me appropriately for the use of my image?" The photographer has to keep in mind there is always a risk vs reward consideration. Always try to deal with a reputable sponsor.

  11. I totally agree that's why I have hardly ever entered any photo contests.
    They do steal yoyur images, us ethem for their own benefit and that is a crime indeed and no selfrespecting photographer should help them.

    That's my opinion, Jurgen Ankenbrand
    [email protected]

  12. Diogital imagimg has brought a bonanca for photographers making things alot easier and cheaper. But the one negative is thyat it's also easier to stael images submitted by photographers
    pros or amateurs and that simply stinks and is dishonmest not to say stealing.
    What can be done about iot?
    1. DO NOT enter any photo contests, especially
    those that say your images may not get a byline.
    2. Know whomm you are sending your images to
    3. If something sounds too good to be true, it
    almost certainly is, I have found out the hard
    4. It's a sad comment on society by don't trust
    anybody should be your mantra when it com,e sto
    trust people you don't know, especially when it
    comes to business and they ask you for something
    without giving you something in return.
    5. Unfortunately as the recession gets worse,
    cheating and thievery becomes more prevelent, so
    be on the lookout for at at all times BEFORE you
    get hurt.

    Jürgen Ankenbrand at:

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