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Contest and other Scams -- BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID.
By Dave Yelen

veryone likes the idea of winning a contest, getting selected to appear in an “exclusive” publication, or even being involved in some kind of “book deal”. While some of these so-called contest and opportunities may be legitimate, most of them are not—they are scams—and artists should be especially weary of participating in anything without thorough investigation of the entire situation. In this article I will talk about some of the things an artist should look and watch out for.

First, my disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on television. I highly recommend that if you have a legal question relating to any issue at all, or anything that I talk about in this article, you should seek expert legal advice from an attorney. Laws and rights differ from country to country, and even within a country, so speaking with an attorney who knows the specific laws relating to you and your rights is invaluable whenever you have any questions that could effect your rights as an artist.

The first and foremost thing every artist should be concerned about is their copyright rights associated with the art they create. What rights to your artwork will you be giving up by getting involved with a contest or other type of offer? This is a very important issue that many artists do not take seriously. This should be a primary concern for all artists any time they allow anyone to have access to their artwork.

I would never get involved in any situation where I would have to grant unlimited and unrestricted use of my artwork to that party. I would also never get involved in any situation where the rights to my artwork are not explicitly defined and are agreeable to me. It is also common for a party to “forget” to provide you with the fine print of the terms and conditions, or not to have them available for easy access on their web site. A good rule of thumb is that if they don’t have something to hide, they won’t be hiding it.

The term, “scam” is a slang term meaning: a fraudulent business scheme; a swindle; and my favorite: a ploy by a shyster to raise money. To me, a scam is whenever you are mislead or tricked into doing something that you think is going to be beneficial to you, but that is ultimately going to be beneficial to someone else.

One of the most common scams that I see are photography contests where the group running the contest is able to do whatever they want with the photos that are submitted. It doesn’t matter if you win or not, this group now has the ability to market, publish, or otherwise use all these photographs for whatever use they desire. Other than the possibility of your actually winning some prize, you get nothing for the use of your photographs, nor is the group required to even notify you of their use. This is just silly – but many contests are like this—even reputable groups running contests.

Here is an excerpt from an unnamed contest’s “fine print”:

    Within 7 days of notification, each potential winner shall submit a signed affidavit of eligibility, release of liability and prize acceptance (the “Affidavit and Release”), and a release executed by each person who appears in the entry (if any), or be disqualified. In the Affidavit and Release, each winner shall give the Sponsors permission, whether directly or indirectly through third-party licensees, to utilize the Entry and make derivative works of the Entry, including the right to reproduce the same, in connection with the reproduction, distribution, public display, publication, republication, and modification of the Entry, whether in whole or in part (including, without limitation, use in connection with any Sponsor promotional material, such as Sponsors’ web sites in a winners gallery and advertising in connection with future contests), with or without the winner’s name, photo, likeness and biographical information, subject to applicable law, and without the further consent of, or compensation to, the winner and/or any person who appears in the Entry. The Affidavit and Release shall also certify the winner’s eligibility and the Entry’s ownership, originality and non-infringement. Subject to the rights granted to Sponsors, each winner retains all copyrights in the Entry. If the Sponsors are unable to contact a potential prize winner(s), if the potential winner(s) fail to complete and return all forms by the specified date or if the potential winner(s) fail to comply with any of the requirements, or if any prize or prize notification is returned as undeliverable, an alternate winner(s) shall be selected. All Contestants release the Sponsors and their respective agents, advertising and promotion agencies, affiliated companies, Contest partners and prize suppliers, and all of their respective affiliated companies, employees, officers, directors and shareholders, from and against all claims and damages arising in connection with each Contestant's participation and/or entry in the Contest and/or their receipt or use of any prize awarded in this Contest. Any and all warranties and guarantees are subject to the respective manufacturer's terms and conditions. This Contest is governed by U.S. law and is subject to all federal, state and local laws. Void where prohibited by law.

If you read this carefully you will see that you are basically giving up all your rights to whatever submissions you give them. To me, this is crazy. The purpose of these contests is simply to acquire hundreds or thousands of entries, all of which they will then have unrestrictive use of. No royalties or even credits to you, as the artist, are offered.

Web Sites that Sell your Photos for You

There are many web sites that are now offering various deals to sell your photos online for you. It’s a great idea however there is one main concern of mine: If you provide them a high-quality digital file of your photo, what system is in place to ensure that they are accurately reporting ALL the sales to you? So far I have not seen any website that gives you any “auditing” rights of the web site’s sales. In my opinion, while it may be convenient to let the web site print and deliver prints without your direct involvement, you are also giving them license to easily do whatever they want without any easy way to ensure they aren’t ripping you off! Furthermore, you do not have any control over the quality of the images they are selling, which means people may purchase your photos through them and receive sub-standard quality, which ultimately reflects poorly on you. Lastly, I have found that most of these web sites are offering prints at such low prices, unless they are selling tons of your prints, you really aren’t making much money from these sales—and it’s just not worth it in my book.

Book Deals

There is a lot of good information on the internet that talks about book deal scams but there are a few things I want to mention here regarding book deals. One thing you should look out for are book deal “contests”. Reputable publishers do not usually have contests to be in a book. The first thing you should always do when considering any type of book deal is look at the publisher. Do a little research on the publisher. Verify that the publisher actually has other published books that you can actually purchase from a reputable store.

Check out the author (or editor) as well. Does he have other books published? What are they and do they have anything to do with art? Are they readily available for purchasing? A little bit of homework on your part can go a long way in avoiding problems later as well as a lot of wasted time.

Note that many "scam" publishers provide ISBN (or other similar) codes for books they say they have published. Remember that it does not mean ANYTHING that a book has one of these identifying serial numbers. Anyone can get one and there is no governing body who ensures that they are real "books". It is also very easy to submit ISBN numbers and book titles to online stores so it "appears" as though the book is real. Make sure that the book is being sold by the book store itself and not through an individual that has registered with an online service.

If the publisher does not have any books on common “Best Seller” lists, then you are probably not going to get any exposure from getting a book published by this publisher. Once again, read all the fine print. See how many copies of the book are guaranteed to be printed and how they are going to be distributed. See “who” is responsible for distributing them. See “who” is responsible for marketing and marketing costs. Usually, book deals and book deal contests do not pay you sales royalties.
      A typical book deal scam is where the “publisher” requires you to pay a fee to get into a book. They try and convince you that you will benefit by “being” in a book with other artists. Often they may even have some “famous” artist or other famous person in the book to try and lure you to get in on the “deal”. They may even show you what the cover will look like before finalization of the editing. Make sure that the contract provides you with the ability to get your money back if the publisher decides at the last minute to make changes to the book that go against what they originally told you. Actually getting your money back is another problem, if something does go wrong.

It is important that you understand how the typical book deal actually works behind the scenes. An author wants to publish a book. The author is going to make money on the sales of this book, but has to first come up with enough money to convince the publisher to do the printing and that money is going to be used to guarantee a minimum amount of sales of the printing. This up-front money often goes toward actually paying for the printing of the book and the copies are delivered directly to the author. Then the author is responsible for marketing and distributing the books – not the publisher.

The scam is simple – the author wants someone else to pay the costs of getting their book printed, so they get other people involved to front the money to cover the costs. The way they do this is to promise people they will get into their book by paying a certain amount of money. Contests may call this an “entry” or “acceptance” fee, but it’s the same thing.

Now that you know how it really usually works, here are some important questions you should ask before writing out that check:

-   Who else is going to appear in this book? Are all the others paying to be in it and are they all paying the same amount as you?
- What is the author and/or publisher going to be contributing to the book and how many pages of the book are going to be devoted to that?
- How many copies of the book will be printed and who is going to handle the distribution and marketing of the book?
- Who gets the profits of the sales of this book?
- Do you get any final approval rights to what will appear in your “section” of the book?
- What is the release date of the book and what happens if it is delayed (as is often the case)?
- Who will hold the copyrights to the book and what are “your” copyright rights to the individual images you will be providing for use in the book?

You should ask all these questions and easily get answers to them, getting them in writing (or email) is even better. If you get a run around trying to get all these answers, don’t get involved with it.

Usually these types of book deals are really what are termed as “vanity publishing”. Don’t be fooled by these types of scams, but keep in mind, that if they are honest with you about it, it could still be a way to inexpensively have your name in a “real looking” book that you can show to your friends. That’s fine if you know that’s what you are getting into from the start.


I want to include a little information about copyrights that every artist should be aware of. Whenever you create an artwork, you automatically have copyright of the artwork until you otherwise grant permission (knowingly or unknowingly) to someone else. Copyright laws differ from country to country, and certain countries do not honor copyrights established from other countries. Dealing with certain countries outside your own may put you in a position where you cannot reasonably enforce your copyright. One very important factor to know is that (in the United States) unless you have REGISTERED your copyright with the Copyright Office, you cannot sue a copyright infringer for monetary damages. Furthermore, in the United States, copyright infringement is a federal issue. This means that if someone violates your copyright the only way to seek a legal judgment against that party is through federal courts. Contrary to what many believe, you cannot sue someone for copyright infringement in a “small claims” court.

What this all means is that if someone steals your artwork and you want to do something about it, you are going to be forced to hire a lawyer and spend lots of money. The cost for doing this is usually way higher than the value of your losses. There is a little bit of good news though—internet based infringement can often be remedied by filing complaints with the hosting provider of the infringer. The remedy, however, will simply be that the infringement will be stopped. It is unlikely that you will ever receive any money (damages) from the infringement without a lawsuit, and remember, you need to have registered your copyright with the copyright office in order to seek any damages in court from the infringer.

Protecting Your Images

The best defense for preventing infringement of artwork is simply to ensure that you never provide anyone any high resolution digital image of your artwork and never upload any high resolution images to any web pages. There is also a lot of confusion about what a high resolution image is. Terms such as Dots Per Inch (DPI) mean nothing and are misleading to the uninformed. The only thing that defines the resolution of an image is the actual pixel dimensions of the image of the artwork. Any image with a pixel dimension of 450 pixels or less is about as large as you want to make any image publicly available. An image of this pixel dimension will look good on the screen of a web page but will not be able to provide a high quality print.

Keeping images small will not prevent someone from stealing your images, but it will severely limit their ability to reproduce the images for any use other than for displaying on a web page. It’s about the best deterrent you can have and still be able to promote your work by showing them online.

Adding a watermark to your image adds a slightly additional level of protection as long as the watermark is visible and effectively “ruins” the image. The problem with a watermark is that if a watermarked image is large enough, a crafty Photoshop user can get rid of the watermark. If you put a watermark on a small image it will detract too much from your artwork and you want to have the best possible representation of your artwork as possible.

Do not be fooled by web sites and software that claim they can prevent others from copying your images. It is impossible for any web site or software program to do this – there are always ways around it.

In conclusion, you are a talented artist and your artwork has value. Treat all artwork like you would any product in a business venture. If an offer or contest seems too good to be true, it probably is – you just have to know what to look for. Remember, the value of your art is only as great as you deem it to be. Don’t just give it away. Contests and other things aren’t always a bad thing – just be very careful and read the fine print!

Dave Yelen is a fine art photographer, a professional wedding and commercial photographer, and graphic designer. He is also founder and programmer of the Gallery Direct web site. Dave also specializes in aviation software systems as well as has experience as an expert witness in copyright infringement. Dave's love of photography is rooted in mastering the old techniques of black and white and is self-taught with the help of many Ansel Adams books, lots of film, chemicals and paper.

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