Note: This is part one of a two-part article on what authors need to know about contests and how to protect their rights.
Contests can be a great way for authors to get their work published and distributed, win awards, hone their skills, and in some cases get their work critiqued. However, when entering any type of writing contest, authors need to read all the Official Rules carefully, as you may discover you are actually giving away your rights for free. Worse, the fine print in some contest rules state entries become the sole property of the sponsor, even if you don't win.
The contest that was the impetus for this article involved a piece of less than 1,500 words for a prominent national magazine covering the most important day of an author's life. It could be anything - getting married, having children, being published, leaving a bad boss and job - the opportunities were endless. But one sentence buried amid the fine print of the Official Rules gave me pause.
The line in question fell under the How To Enter section of the rules and said thus: "Entries become sole property of Sponsor, and none will be acknowledged or returned". From my point of view these rules stated that while I would be recognized as the author if I won, I was literally giving away my rights. Just to be sure I wasn't reading more into this contract than I should; I consulted a fellow author who had experience in the publishing industry. Her response caught my attention: "Just so you know, a publications' keeping of all rights is VERY COMMON for contests of all sorts -- even photo contests. It's as if you're agreeing to writing for hire".
To understand what you're getting yourself into, it's best to offer a definition of "Work for Hire" especially if you've never done it before. A good definition is this: Writing for hire concerns payment terms. When someone writes for hire, she is paid a flat fee, often in installments for a long work, such as a book. Many educational publishers pay all their authors a flat fee. People who write things like advertising copy, training materials, or government documents write for hire.
Being the author, by entering some contests you are providing the sponsor, (which could be anything from a company or organization, magazine, newsletter, books - the options are varied and many) with content, which they now own the rights to. You, on the other hand, have very often relinquished all rights for free. You may get recognition as the author of the work but you will not get future royalties or even be able to include the book/article, etc. as part of your author's biography.