Amateur photographers are suckers for scam artists who run photography contests. In this article, I'll talk about the most popular scams and how to recognize and avoid them. Don't give your photographs away for free or worse - pay for the privilege of seeing them in print!
Scam 1: Stock photography for nothing
Ever wonder how you can buy a CD-ROM full of royalty free stock photography for $4.95 at the local OfficeMax? In this scam, the contest organizers announce quite splendid prizes (a new digital SLR or lens, etc.) or sometimes even cash. All you have to do is just send in your photographs with the attached release form and sometimes a small cash processing fee.
If you read the fine print of the release form, you would blanch. By submitting the entries, you have granted the contest organizers the right to use your photographs in any way they see fit in perpetuity without recompense. To make things worse, you indemnify them against all liability -- so if you shot something you shouldn't have (violating, for example, a copyrighted building profile or someone's privacy) and someone decides to sue the stock photo company, you've agreed to pay all of the legal fees and damages. Sucker is just written on your forehead.
Here's an example from the National Geographic "Your Photo" competition:
By submitting a photograph for consideration... you grant to National Geographic Society and its subsidiaries and licensees (the "NGS") a royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual license to display, distribute and reproduce the Photograph, in whole or in part, in any medium now existing or subsequently developed for editorial purposes without further review or participation from you.
Translation: By submitting your photo, you give National Geographic all rights to your photograph, they don't have to pay you anything to use it in any media they want, and they do not have to consult with you on any use they might have for it. In other words: SUCKER!
Many pet calendars are produced this way. On the back of each calendar is an invitation to send in your entry for the next calendar. The prize might be $50 or $100 or even just a free calendar next year. But people still send in their material for free and include the handy release form. What a great deal for the calendar makers.
Scam 2: The Coffee Table Book
In this scam, the organizers emphasize that you retain copyright over your photographs through the whole process. You send in some photographs and they write back with a gushing letter saying how wonderful your photos are, and that you've been selected as the cover artist for the 2007 Best New Photographers in the USA book.
Of course, you're very honored and send in your credit card to order ten copies of the $60 book. When you get the book, you find that you are indeed the cover artist, but the cover is a flimsy sheet of paper that looks like it could have been done at the local Kinkos color copier. Google for "International Library of Photography" if you want to see some complaints along this line.
How the scam works: This is a variation of the Poetry Contest where everyone is a winner -- and eligible to buy overpriced editions of books with their works in it. If you really want to see yourself in print, save yourself some money and order a custom book through iPhoto -- you'll save yourself $50 and a lot of grief.
Now there are a few legit photography contests -- usually run directly by Canon, Nikon, or Fuji Film. Read the fine print, know what you're getting into, and don't send in your best work unless you're sure that you can retain copyright over it. Never license anything in perpetuity.
Comments and feedback are always welcome. I haven't talked about other scams including fake modeling sites (TPO scams), fake press certifications, and so forth. If you've been ripped off, post your narrative here. The web form below asks for your handle and e-mail address for anti-spam purposes but the actual post will be anonymous unless you use your real name in the form.