Photo Competition Usage Rights: Like Gambling In Lottery

(All monetary values mentioned in this essay are measured in the Singapore currency.)

Photography competitions. An event of many opportunities. An opportunity to be rewarded. An opportunity to be recognized. An opportunity to have your skills evaluated by others, against others. Unfortunately,  also an opportunity to surrender your images’ usage rights unconditionally to another organization.

I just received another photography competition invitation in my inbox. Browsing the terms and conditions carefully reveals the copyright demon:

The Organiser retains the right to publish all photographs for an unlimited period of time, display printed versions of the photographs for public showcase and use the photographs for promotional and marketing purposes without obtaining further prior permission and payment of any fees or royalties to the participant.

I took a look at the prizes offered for winning entries. A total of 3 categories. A 1st-prize, 2nd-prize, 3rd-prize, and 5 consolation prizes for each category, with the estimated prize breakdown as follows:

  • ~ 3.5K – 4K camera equipment and vouchers for 1st prize.
  • ~ 2K camera equipment and vouchers for 2nd prize.
  • 1.5K camera equipment and vouchers for 3rd prize.
  • ~ $300 camera equipment and vouchers for 5 consolation prizes.

Which basically puts the total worth of prizes to be handed out to be around ~25K. So if you do win, this is equivalent to licensing an image to an organization for perpetual use for between $300 – $4,000. Excluding the full-time photographers who prefer to spend their time and energy on reaping revenue from their established business, this deal does not sound horrible for enthusiasts even at the lowest end, doesn’t it? Except that this line of thinking is only attractive if you win anything at all. The organiser gets copyright permission to all submitted images for their own use, regardless of whether the images are winning entries or not.

Visual appreciation is subjective. You may feel that you have created a beautiful image, but I have seen results of photography competitions that left me scratching my head. Ultimately beauty and appreciation is in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes the agenda of the organiser will determine the winners. A photography competition is not like a sports competition, where the fastest or strongest person wins. Technical excellence could put your work among the top lists. However what eventually wins is entirely subjected to the opinions and preferences of the judging panel. In photo contests with these types of usage T&Cs, you are akin to gambling your images’ usage rights in a lottery. A lot of participants. Winning is a matter of luck. Only a few winners. Lots of losers. And the organiser wins big.

Read the T&Cs, and decide if you want to gamble. Advanced congratulations to the soon-to-be group of winners, and better luck to those who didn’t. Because you know, you really need luck with lottery.

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