Watch out for rights grabs – National Geographic My Montana contest and SmartShoot (UPDATE)

UPDATE (20 March 2013): TurnHere is now known as SmartShoot and remains a rights grab.

We try to publicize good opportunities for photographers through the blog here and our deadline calendar. In deciding whether or not to include a contest or call for entry on our calendar, we look at the terms and conditions of submitting work to the contest. A good contest, in line with Pro-Imaging’s Bill of Rights Standards for Photography Competitions, promotes the winners’ work while respecting them and their work. Usually, this means by entering or winning a contest, the photographer retains all rights to his or her images and that the contest and its sponsors can use the submitted or winning images only to publicize the contest and its winners and only for a short time period. All of the contests on our calendar conform to these basic guidelines.

But we see a lot of contests that have bad conditions for entry, usually in the form of a “rights grab,” which you’ve also probably encountered in contracts for assignment photography. A “rights grab” takes your copyright away from you, preventing you from reselling your work ever again and, potentially, from even showing your work in your portfolio. It’s a dirty tactic, and it’s sad to see how many photo contests have rights grabs. A good rule of thumb is that any contest run by a travel-related company (airlines, luggage companies, resorts, etc.) is a rights grab. For the organizations in charge, running these contests is a quick, easy and cheap way to build an image library for its future use. Why should an airline company, for instance, pay fees to photographers to take pictures of tropical destinations when all of their paying customers will just send in their travel pictures for free? It’s a bad deal for photographers. Your rights have value. Here’s a short mention of one photographer earning upwards of $140,000 by relicensing images to the same client over 8 years. Had the photographer worked under a buyout, work-for-hire, or other rights grab situation, he would have made nothing beyond the initial fee. Had he submitted them to a rights-grabbing photo contest, he would have made nothing at all.

I thought I’d share two rights grabs that recently caught my attention because they at first seemed like interesting opportunities for me to gain exposure and future work.




National Geographic - My Montana contest is a rights grab

National Geographic’s My Montana contest features a pretty standard rights grab. It’s particularly sad to see National Geographic taking advantage of photographers in this way, especially since the organization has been so supportive of photography and photographers since the beginning of the craft. Here’s the rights grab, from the contest’s rules‘, Section 4:

Submission of an entry grants Sponsor and their agents a license and right to use, publish, adapt, edit and/or modify such entry in any way, in whole or in part, and to use such entry alone or in combination with other works, as solely determined by Sponsor, in commerce and trade and in any and all media now known or hereafter discovered, worldwide, including but not limited to the Website, without limitation or compensation to the Entrant and without right of notice, review or approval of any such use of the entry.

Reading that section, it’s clear that by entering a photo in the contest, you give National Geographic and the State of Montana the unlimited, perpetual, worldwide right to use and publish your photos anywhere for any purpose. National Geographic could publish your photos in one of their books, or sell it as a poster on their website, and you wouldn’t see a dime. If Montana’s Office of Tourism wants to put your photo on a billboard in Times Square or on the side of a train in Minneapolis, they don’t have to pay you. And they could do it now, next month, or 300 years from now, and you wouldn’t know. I personally know the value of this. Montana’s Office of Tourism recently contacted me to license a photo for this year’s winter tourism guide (page 9 of this PDF). It was a very small usage, but it paid for rent. Had I submitted the photo to the contest, it wouldn’t have won and they could have used the picture for free. I would have lost twice, and possibly many times in the future, too.

I tried contacting National Geographic through the contest website and twitter, but have not gotten a response.




Turn Here - an egregious rights grab

About a month ago I received an email from TurnHere with the subject line: “Hiring Professional Freelance Photographers.” The email said, “We’re growing our network of professional photographers and like what we’ve seen of your work. TurnHere provides paid shoot jobs to our photographers on behalf of some of the world’s premier brands (Google, Microsoft, Audi, . . .) and we’d like to invite you to apply to our network as part of our early access program.” Corporate work is a growing part of my business, and it looked like an interesting opportunity. After seeing the website, it looked even better: more than $12 million paid to creatives, $100,000 made by a single person this year, 600+ jobs currently available through the system. Sounds great! But the Independent Contractor agreement is really ugly. For instance, Section 4.a and b:

TurnHere is the sole and exclusive owner of, and Independent Contractor hereby irrevocably assigns to TurnHere all Deliverables, regardless of whether such Deliverables are specified in any Project description, and all rights, title, interest, and ownership throughout the world in any Deliverable, including all Intellectual Property Rights in and to any Deliverable. Independent Contractor hereby irrevocably and unconditionally waives all enforcement of each of the foregoing rights. All Deliverables are and will belong exclusively to TurnHere, with TurnHere having the right to obtain and to hold in its name, any and all Intellectual Property Rights. … In jurisdictions such as Canada, where moral rights may not be assigned, Independent Contractor irrevocably and expressly waives in favor of TurnHere and agrees never to assert any and all “moral rights” that it may have in any Deliverable.

That’s hard to parse, but what it means is that you never own any pictures you take as part of TurnHere and that you can’t even show them as part of your portfolio. More than that, there’s no requirement that your work will be credited to you once it’s used in an advertising campaign. You’ll get paid (though I don’t know the rates) but you’ll have nothing to show afterward. Everything you do for the job becomes the property of TurnHere. This hurts you in a couple of ways. You can’t relicense any of your pictures to the original client or future clients. This may not seem like a big deal when you’re looking at a commission and don’t have a lot of other work, but subsequent licensing fees can and should be a part of your future business. I know a couple of photographers who’ve recently paid for cars and houses through corporate use of photos that started out in an editorial assignment.

Steer well clear of TurnHere and any other such deals. By taking part in such a scheme, you’re crippling your future earnings and making it difficult even to market yourself through your previous work. TurnHere suggests that by working through them, you’ll be able to associate yourself with some of the world’s top brands, but reading the above excerpt of their agreement about “moral rights,” your name will not be associated with the pictures you make for these companies. The only way to get work is to show your previous work. Here, you don’t have the right to show your photos without permission of TurnHere after the fact. By agreeing to work for TurnHere, you’ve pulled the rug out from under yourself before you’ve even begun.

I emailed back and forth with a representative from TurnHere to try to figure out what was going on here, and they seemed receptive to input from potential contributors. But communication died off without getting an official response from the company.




The sad fact is that rights grabs are becoming more and more common. The good news is that sometimes you can negotiate away a rights grab in a contract. I’ve had to do just that a few times this year. In a couple of cases, I was successful and achieved a decent fee for a limited usage of my work. In other cases, I’ve had to turn down the work because it was a bad deal for me. And I’m not a copyright absolutist. Everything can be had at a price. If someone wants to pay a million dollars for perpetual, exclusive rights to a photo shoot, I’m all ears. I have sold full copyright to one image in my career, and it was for a very nice fee.

Contests with terms such as in National Geographic’s My Montana contest and assignment contracts such as TurnHere’s make the future sustainability of a photographer’s career all but impossible. The best way to protect yourself is to educate yourself and keep your rights. You never know what images will sell down the line, and you don’t want to decimate your future earnings. A good place to start with learning about contracts and rights is with John Harrington’s excellent Best Business Practices for Photographers book. And here are a few tips on how to avoid a rights grab and how to deal with rights grabbing photo releases common in the music industry.

UPDATE (20 March 2013): TurnHere is now known as SmartShoot and remains a rights grab.