Read the fine print

Read the fine print

Heather M. O’Connor.
I recently stumbled across a contest for writers and artists, run by a well-known government-funded organization. The topic was intriguing. So were the $500 prize and the no-fee entry. Until I read the rules.

By entering this Contest and submitting an entry, you grant to Sponsors the right use to any material related to your entry for use in any and all manner, format, or media whether now known or hereafter devised (which use may include without limitation, editing, reformatting, modifying, publishing, posting, distributing, displaying, and transmitting for print, audio, visual, digital, or broadcast media and the like), for any purpose, including without limitation, the Contest and advertising Sponsors  or Sponsors’ products, services and organization.” 

Hold the phone.

If I entered, I’d surrender ALL RIGHTS to my work. In perpetuity. Contest organizers and even their sponsors could publish my story even if I didn’t win. They could reformat it, modify it, post it or publish it anywhere and as often as they wished.

And remember. This rule doesn’t just apply to the winners. It applies to EVERYONE who enters.

This is the second such contest I’ve seen recently. The other was the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) nature photography contest. Again, ALL entrants (not just winners) must agree to grant:

“…to the ROM a royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual, transferrable, non-exclusive license to use, reproduce, modify, publish, create derivative works from, and display his/her wildlife photo (the “Work”), in whole or in part, on a worldwide basis, and to incorporate it into other works, in any form, media or technology now known or later developed, including for promotional or marketing purposes; in connection with the Contest.

The Canadian literary magazine Geist, on the other hand, makes a more modest and reasonable rights request:

“Winning entries: Geist takes first serial rights for print and non-exclusive electronic rights to post the text and image at geist.com. All other rights remain with the author. 

All publication rights for non-winning entries are retained by the entrants.”

That’s more like it. So what am I giving up?

  • First serial rights. That’s one-time publication in their magazine, then the rights are mine again. That’s fair.
  • Non-exclusive electronic rights. They can publish it online forever, but it’s still mine.

And there’s none of this “waiving of all rights in perpetuity” nonsense.

Don’t go in blind

Always read the rules when you enter a contest. Then ask yourself the following questions:

What rights am I giving away?

Publication rights can be for a country or a language, (e.g., Canadian, European, world, French language.) They can cover a variety of formats: print and online, audio and visual, or “all manner, format, or media whether now known or hereafter devised.”

Will I ever need the rights again?

I might if I want to publish that story in an anthology, or include it in a novel.

Moral of the story?

When you enter a contest, verify the rights you’re signing away. Even trustworthy organizations can include unfair conditions.

Did you know…

There are plenty of places, in print and online, to find contest listings. Here are a few you might like:

Got a good tip on good contests to enter or your favourite places to find them? Let us know in the comments below.

Learn from two contest insiders when you spend a day with writing contest judges, winners and organizers, Ruth E. Walker and Dorothea Helms. Watch for their always popular Write to Win workshop later this spring.

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6 thoughts on “Read the fine print

  1. Thanks for this, Heather. I think it’s also about how much we value our own work. Sometimes as a new writer trying to be published anywhere, I had the “just won the lottery” mindset. This is a good reminder to treat my work as worthy of pay.

    1. Writers routinely undervalue our work. And eager to see our work validated through publication makes it much easier to let our rights slip away without realizing it. If I writer opts to choose publication over payment, that’s certainly their choice. Indeed, I’ve done it. But first know what that might mean down the road.

  2. Such well presented and valuable information, Heather–I am saving this for future reference. Thank you. And Christine, thanks to you, too, for your role modeling. Got my magnifying glass and my dukes up.

  3. An excellent and timely post. In addition to carefully reading contest rules and making informed decisions I would add that it is worth considering writing to the contest organizers to challenge the entry rules. I wrote to the ROM nature photography contest (mentioned above) and they not only responded but also actually had their legal team modify the rules regarding entries and post the revised rules on their website. I think there can be value in pushing back and challenging the sponsors and contest organizers too.

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