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How Not to Get Scammed by a Writing Contest Part 6

By Karen M. Rider


Writer Beware the Copyright Clause in Writing Contests

Welcome back to “How Not to Get Scammed,” an in-depth look at the writing contest market and strategies to help you reap the best possible return on your investment. In our first installment we covered how to scrutinize the history and foundation of a contest relative to the entry fee, number of submissions or winners and number of prize categories. The second post on this topic introduced three ratios you can calculate to estimate if a contest is worth your time and dime to enter, relative to the entry fee, number of submissions or winners and number of prize categories. Next, we showed you why a contest needs to be “naked,” that is, why the transparency of the writing contest submission process is important. In the fourth installment, we revealed why it’s important to know who your story (or book or poem) is “going home with” to be judged.  Next, we showed you how getting in touch with previous contest winners could provide insight on the integrity of a contest and its sponsors. In this, our final installment, we provide a primer on the matter of copyright when it comes to entering and winning writing contests.

Before entering a contest, you want to ascertain a clear understanding of the copyright that a contest promoter wants to acquire for a winning entry and the legal implications of submitting your copyrighted work to contests. For example, simply entering a contest should not give the sponsor publication rights to your work.

According to Tonya M. Evans, Associate Professor at Widener University School of Law and author of a series of legal reference guides for writers, the legal implications include the type of rights granted; the difference in treatment (if any) between “winning submissions” and the rest; how long the grant lasts; the geographic territory covered; and the types of uses permitted.

Type of Rights Granted

“In most cases, the contest producer will want, at a minimum, the irrevocable right to publish (first serial rights) or to re-publish (second serial or “reprint” rights) the submission. In either case, that right usually will be a “license to use” and not a transfer of copyright ownership unless the work is being accepted for formal publication,” says Evans.

Evans advises writers to make certain of which situation applies to the contest because “there is a significant legal difference between granting a license to use the submission and a transfer of some or all of the copyright interest in it.” Additionally, if the work is accepted for formal publication then a separate publishing agreement should be secured “in writing and signed by the transferor.”

Length of Time Rights are Granted

Contest sponsors typically require “an irrevocable and perpetual license to use the submission, which may permit for any and all uses in print, digital and multimedia formats without additional permission throughout the world,” explains Evans. Basically, a broad license allows the contest sponsor to use the submission in a reasonable time frame without having to repeatedly seek permission for every use from the owner of each submission. Such a broad license is not as bad as it first may sound, “as long as the contestant is not limited in his ability to license, sell or otherwise exploit the submission.”

An irrevocable license to use a submission cannot be revoked unless, says Evans, “the licensee is misusing the license or otherwise acting outside the scope of permissible uses.” In a situation where a writer has transferred ownership of any copyright interest, it is crucial to have reversion of those interests made clear in writing. Contest rules will govern when rights revert back to the author.  All writers should know they have the right terminate and to reclaim one’s rights, even those deemed “irrevocable” or “in perpetuity.”

Multimedia Use of the Original Submission

In the digital age it is critical for contest sponsors to be clear about, and for authors to understand the multimedia uses of a contest submission. Evans suggests writers examine contest rules and regulations for the following information:

  • Will the sponsor display submissions on a Website, in a newsletter or an anthology (print book or ebook)?
  • Can the sponsor reprint the submission in post-contest media?
  • Do they want to alter or adapt the submission in any way, which creates a “derivative work”?
  • Do they want to license the work to other parties?

Whether the contest is for a short story, poetry or longer works of fiction or nonfiction, writers should expect reasonable compensation, monetary or otherwise (e.g., larger prize purse, royalties, recognition) in exchange for and commensurate with the breadth of rights granted.

Ultimately, every contest should help you move your career forward, financially or creatively. Strive to strike a balance between the ROI for tangible rewards with those that are less tangible, but perhaps equally important to your professional development. Hope Clark offers this wisdom:

“I encourage writers to stretch their abilities for contests using a 25/50/25 formula: 25 percent to easy markets, 50 percent to markets equal to the writer's current ability, and 25 percent to difficult, long-odds markets. Contests can be barometers for your writing or serious efforts to springboard your success.” Not every contest will do both; at different times, one will be more important than the other to a literary portfolio.

Read the entire article in the May 2013 issue of Book Marketing Magazine available from iTunes.

Freelance writer Karen M. Rider has learned the hard way about the perils of entering writing contests. She has published numerous articles on success steps for aspiring writers and emerging authors. A frequent contributor to The Writer Magazine and Writer’s Digest, Karen is contributing editor with Book Marketing Magazine.

Learn More about Karen   Twitter @KarenMRider

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