USA Today: Doing the Right Thing

From aboard the National Geographic Explorer in the Indian Ocean

A moon jellyfish and snorkeler off Farquhar Atoll, Seychelle Islands
A moon jellyfish and snorkeler off Farquhar Atoll, Seychelle Islands. Photo © Bob Krist

Piracy is everywhere these days….we’ve really been feeling it aboard the NG Explorer in this last week or so as the Somali pirates kept forcing our itinerary to change to avoid them.

But piracy isn’t restricted to the high seas anymore. More and more photo contests are holding your copyright hostage just by entering, and trying to build photo libraries with your work, without any compensation.

Just before I left, the travel editor of USA Today, an old friend, asked if I woud be a judge of their travel photo contest. No money, but a chance to have lunch with my old editor and get a trip to DC where my sons live. So I jumped on the opportunity.

Even though unfair photo contest rules have become a pet peeve of mine lately (see the post A Photo Contest with Fair Rules????), I was heading out the door and didn’t read the USA Today’s contest rules. Fortunately, a sharp-eyed reader of this blog named Marcelo did and pointed out the following paragraph, which is pretty much a pirates’ declaration of war on copyright .

Copyright. By entering the Contest, each contestant
grants to Sponsor an exclusive, royalty-free and irrevocable right
and license to publish, print, edit or otherwise use the
contestant’s submitted entry, in whole or in part, for any purpose
and in any manner or media (including, without limitation, the
Internet) throughout the world in perpetuity, and to license others
to do so, all without limitation or further compensation. Each
contestant further agrees that if his/her entry is selected by
Sponsor as the winning entry, he/she will sign any additional
license or release that Sponsors may require, and will not publicly
display his or her photo submission without the express permission
of Sponsor.

Once tipped off by reader Marcelo, I emailed my objections to the editor, who then took them to the legal department. I said I couldn’t be a judge if the rules stayed pat. A fellow judge took a similar stand.

Was the editor able to get the terms modified? Did we keep the pirates at bay? Did USA Today step up and do the right thing? Hit the jump to find out.

The short answer is: yes. After asking them to examine whether or not they really needed all those rights, the legal guys came back with a modified want list. The new copyright clause is below. Yes, by entering you still give them some rights to use your photos, but only in connection with promoting and writing about the contest, instead of the “all rights throughout the universe” boilerplate in the original.

Copyright. Each contestant retains the copyright to the photograph entered but grants to Sponsor the royalty-free right to publish the entry in USA TODAY and online at and in connection with the Contest. Each contestant further acknowledges that he/she may be asked to sign an additional release in connection with Sponsor’s use or publication of the photograph.

Is it the ideal set of rules? Not yet. I’m still a little queasy about using entrants’ photos without compensation. If you win a big prize, it’s one thing to give up some usages. But at least now the entrants won’t be giving up all their rights, and the winners will retain some rights to their work as well.

We make progress in little steps. If a big publishing organization like USA Today was able to step back, look at their legal boilerplate, and say, “okay, maybe we’d like all these rights, but what we need are only these certain rights,” and then make the appropriate changes, this is a big step in the right direction. It’s a precedent that hopefully will make other big companies who run photo contests with pirate-like rules sit up and take notice: the days of photo contest copyright piracy are numbered!

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. I can’t agree more. Its so important to read all the small print BEFORE entering any competition.

    That’s not to say you should avoid all contests. There are still some decent competitions with decent prices decent terms & conditions.

    Tom Bourdon
    Images of global celebration

  2. Thanks for taking the stand that you did. If more judges refuse to judge contests with rights grabs then over time the contest rules at most legitimate contests might change. Might I suggest that you bring this up in your Outdoor Photographer column and ask readers to take a similar stand if they get asked to judge a contest. I’ll bet that quite a people would be aware that you brought this up in your OP column and it might have a ripple effect. You have the power of the the pulpit (printing press) with your columns!

    1. Michael: It’s a good suggestion, but a lot of the worst offenders are the very magazine publishers who would publish the article. So they wouldn’t, if it put them in a bad light. Still, there’s a bit of a groundswell going on about unfair contest rules, so you may see other publishers follow suit if enough noise is made in the blogosphere and forums. BK

  3. I have always felt that Photo Contests were won by someone even before the contest was announced, so I just stay away from them and share my hobby with those who are interested in what I do, and I love doing it My Way.

  4. If your photo is good enough to win a photo contest, it’s good enough to make many dollars for you during its lifetime. Retain all your rights. Avoid contests where the winner is actually the company holding the contest. – RE

  5. I agree with everything you have said regarding this topic. I hope your blog entry does not make you persona non-grata (sp?) at these magazines and contests.

  6. Good on you, Mr Krist. You’re a stand up guy.

  7. Glad to see the fire hasn’t gone out Bob. Keep at ’em, since most contests also have entry fees, another cash grab.
    Best, Ottmar

    1. Ottmar: Great to hear from you. Hope you are well. Coming south in the near future? Bob

  8. Even worse are the “pay to play” contests entered by many of the moms & dads with cameras. They’ll actually pay an entrant fee, and basically sign away their rights. One of these was brought to my attention by a friend with a young child who thought she had an awesome snap. On reading the terms, one of the clauses stated the rights to “redistribute as part of a collection.” In essence, the unsuspecting mom would have actually paid these yokels to resell her photo.

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