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July 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 41, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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What to Know About Photo Contests and Contracts

from the July, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Wow, the National Geographic Society has really done some cost-cutting. Not only did it fire its veteran staff underwater photographer, David Doubilet, so it could outsource photos, it's asking people to pay money to submit photos for contests, then asking them for the right to use those photos however and whenever they want, free of charge.

That's why Undercurrent subscriber Kandace Heimer (Houston, TX) says she'll never send photos to its magazine again. "In 2010, I sent an underwater photo to its 'Your Shot' contest. It became popular and was picked as Editor's Choice. Afterwards, I started seeing my photo used in several advertising campaigns for National Geographic's online magazine. Of course, I was shocked, so I looked up the 'Terms and Conditions' you must sign to enter. It states that you agree your photography can be used for advertising, third-party placement, etc., without compensation or recognition." Gina Sanfilippo (San Francisco, CA) received an honorable mention in another National Geographic contest but didn't win anything or even get notified. "I found out only after I saw the photo posted on a third-party site. Another one of my photos showed up on a different organization's website."

Underwater photo contests are popular, especially with their sponsors, as it's a way to get excellent images without paying for them. "Many contests are just rights-grabs for the benefit of the contest sponsor," says professional photographer Chris Huss. And many sponsors can't be bothered to let the lucky winners know their photos were picked -- or let the non-winners know their photos are being used anyway and without their knowledge."

Marty Farber (Niskayuna, NY) entered a photo contest run by Turneffe Island Resort in Belize a few years back. "Sure enough, I didn't win, but without informing me, my picture was used in an ad they ran. I wasn't paid, though I was identified as the photographer."

That's why underwater photographers need to learn about use rights so they can make informed decisions on what to do when allowing others access to their images. Here are a few suggestions:

Read the rules. Most reputable contests require a low entry fee, and the ones you ideally want to enter only request rights to use winning images for certain specific usages, such as one-time use in a web gallery that shows the winning entries, and usage rights are limited to a couple of years, not "in perpetuity." For its 2014 photo contest rules, National Geographic wanted the "irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide non-exclusive license" to use photos however and whenever they want "without additional compensation." (The entry fee is $15). If you're fine with an organization taking your photos and doing with them what they will, just be aware, and pick an organization you would support in other ways.

Take care where you put your photos. Dan Clements (Everett, WA) stopped posting his shots on sites like Facebook and ScubaBoard. "They started showing up, without permission, on other people's web sites." Virginia Bria (San Francisco, CA), former president of the Northern California Underwater Photographic Society, says that if you want to show off your photos, do it on your own website and format it so they can't be stolen. "There are ways to format a photo so it can't be blown up and reproduced," she says. "Put your name across or on the bottom of the photo."

Copyright your photo. Huss learned to do this the hard way after entering a photo contest sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (a federal agency) and seeing his winning shot used beyond the one-year limit for promotional uses. "Someone who wanted to use it in a book told me that it was listed by NOAA as public use, and in Wikipedia as public domain. Just think how valuable this image could have been, but the only way to get reimbursed is to sue NOAA." If your photo has a copyright, however, you can take legal action if it's used illegally, and the offender must pay your attorney fees and punitive damages.

Don't undercut the pros. Bria says it's still worthwhile to enter fee-based photo contests, just check out who is sponsoring them and whether you're fine with what they do. "If it's a nonprofit, you're supporting the organization and a good cause." But don't give your shots for free to a for-profit company, she says. "If they want my photo, I'd charge them and then donate the money, because I don't want to undercut the pros, who make a living from them."

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