It’s become almost routine. Whenever you join a website or download a program, you tick a little box that says that you’ve read and agreed to the Terms of Service.
Most of the time, you don’t actually read the Terms of Service. If you do ever try make sense of the pages of legalese, you’ll usually find you’re agreeing that it’s not the company’s fault if you get struck by lightning while using their site in a thunderstorm, but if you do decide to sue, you’ll have to do it in Alaska. Or something like that.
Most of the time, such as when downloading an update or joining a membership site, ticking the box blindly doesn’t do any harm and can actually save you some painful reading.
The exception is when the stage after ticking the box is to upload pictures. When photographers do that, they’re handing over an asset to someone who’s going to do something with it. It isn’t fun, but the only way to know for sure that what they’re going to do with your image is fair is to read the small print.
Most news-related photography sites such as Scoopt and Citizen Image, for example, require photographers not to sell their images through anyone else for three months. As soon as you upload a newsworthy picture then, your rights to that image are frozen for a quarter of a year, after which time the picture is not likely to be worth anything anyway. It’s worth knowing that when you hit “send,” you’re betting the value of the shot that that site is going to do something with it.
At least that’s clear though. Other sites have such long legal documents that it’s unlikely that anyone has ever read them all. The legal section at istockphoto.com, for example, consists of ten different agreements. The bit that’s really important comes in Section 3, Paragraph C of the Artist’s Supply Agreement (Non-Exclusive). It says:
The Parties agree that all rights, including title and copyright, in and to the uploaded Accepted Content will be retained by the Supplier, and no title or copyright is transferred or granted in any way to iStockphoto or any third party except as provided in this Agreement and the Content License Agreement.
So the pictures you upload are yours and remain yours. The rest is detail… that you still have to read.
The one place where it’s an absolutely, no-quibble, certain obligation to read the small print is when you sign up for a photo contest. There are lots of these nowadays and some of them are easy ways for the organizers to load up on free images. The terms of service for the American Automobile Association’s PetBook photo contest, for example, states:
All photos entered in the contest, including the prize-winning photo(s), along with all rights of every kind therein, become the sole and exclusive property of AAA and will not be returned.
That’s a respectable organization doing something very disreputable.
It’s acceptable for a contest to use entrants to promote itself. It’s not acceptable to use them for anything else after the contest has ended. In general, the bigger the contest, the less likely the organizer is to take liberties with your copyright, but that’s not always true.
If you don’t read what the organizer has to say about your rights, you just won’t know what he’s going to do with them.