You Decide: Does a National Portrait Gallery Contest Trample Artists’ Rights?

The National Portrait Gallery has announced a portrait competition that has stirred the outrage of at least one photographer (who told us about it) because of the rights transfer terms of the contest rules.

Rights transfers in photography contests are often a lightning rod, but the rules of this contest are more complicated than “we own everything you submit.”

The contest is the triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, named for a wealthy patroness who endowed the competition. The Portrait Gallery is accepting entries in the form of portraits in all media (painting, drawing, sculpture, prints, photography and electronic and digital media) made after January 1, 2010.

A panel of jurors will select an overall winner, plus other entries for an exhibition in 2013. The grand prize winer will receive $25,000 in cash, “and will have the opportunity for a separate commission to portray a remarkable living American for the Portrait Gallery’s collection,” according to the contest announcement.

Let’s cut to the fine print about rights in the contest rules. The first paragraph applies to all entries:

Ownership of all portraits submitted for the Portrait Competition, including copyright, will remain the property of the artist, but it is a condition of entry that the artist shall grant to the National Portrait Gallery the irrevocable, royalty-free, worldwide right to use and reproduce all exhibited works for the exhibition publications, public programs, publicity, promotion, research, postcards, prints, posters, and other products, in all formats, including but not limited to electronic distribution on websites and social media accounts maintained by the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian, in connection with the Portrait Competition and resulting exhibition. Distribution can occur either through printed or electronic media.

Plain English translation? Artists keep copyright to the entries they submit, but agree to give the National Portrait Gallery rights to use the works in any and all promotions for the competition and exhibition, in print and online. That could include the sale of posters, postcards and other products featuring the works at the gift shop and on the NPG web site, without compensation to the artists.

The second paragraph of the “rights” section of the rules applies only to the grand prize winner, and specifically to the commissioned portrait he or she has the option–but not obligation–to create for the National Portrait Gallery:

The winning artist will be required to transfer ownership of, and assign all rights, including copyright, in the commissioned portrait to the National Portrait Gallery, but the National Portrait Gallery will grant the artist a license to reproduce the portrait for use in his or her portfolio for noncommercial, portfolio purposes. The commissioned portrait will be submitted to the National Portrait Gallery’s Commission for approval of its inclusion in the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection.

Translation: the National Portrait Gallery owns copyright to the commissioned portrait created by the winner (but not to the portraits submitted by the winner to enter the contest in the first place). All the winner is allowed to do with the commissioned portrait is display it in his or her portfolio.

In short, the NPG contest rules pertaining to copyrights fall somewhere between “we expect and get nothing from contest participants” and “we expect and get everything.” It should be emphasized that participation isn’t compulsory, and the grand prize winner has no obligation to accept a commission (they get $25,000 plus an “opportunity” for a commission, for an additional fee, according to the rules).

Should we be outraged? Are participants giving up any more promotional rights than other competitions typically demand? Also, clients often ask for rights transfers as a condition for a commission, and there’s no law against it. Should we hold a US government institution to a different standard, and if so, why?

8 Responses to “You Decide: Does a National Portrait Gallery Contest Trample Artists’ Rights?”

  1. Lisa Bevis Says:

    Sounds like a very nice opportunity for an unknown artist. If you are chosen for the gallery showing many thousands will see your work through their promotion and you retain your copyright to sell your work. If you win, then you get $25,000 and you could shoot someone well known and get that in the gallery’s permanent collection too. Is the promotional publicity worth the loss of one image? For someone whose career is at the right stage for this kind of boost I would say yes. Is it ethical? It doesn’t seem like it, but they are putting on the competition and making the rules. Very good question!

  2. Sam Says:

    From what I gathered you win $25,000 which is already great. However I also see the transfer of all ownership and copyright of the commissioned piece is given to them. I work in a fine art gallery and that is pretty standard to me.

  3. overreact much? Says:

    Meh. These terms are no so unlike taking a commercial commission. And 25k is more than most photographers make in a day. Translation: welcome to the real world, and have fun with your money.

  4. Andrea Says:

    Only one person wins $25,000. The rest get their works plastered all over promotional items – probably without their names on it – for nothing. I understand the NPG needs to promote the exhibition, but it sure would be nice to reverse the trend of photographers losing out just for entering a competition.

  5. Geo Says:

    If you don’t like it- don’t do it. As stated by others here- this is standard contestspeak. Take a look at other types of competitions and you’ll see similar conditions.

  6. Michael Says:

    I remember once reading the rules for a National Geographic contest and it said, I believe, that just by entering you (not just the winner) gave all rights to Nat. Geo. Did anybody else see that?

  7. Grayhair Says:

    This is “work for hire” people! If any pro photographer believes the National Portrait Gallery Contest terms is a good deal, you are either new to the business or you are stupid. Either way, it leaves little doubt why our industry is in the shape that it is: too many desperate photographers with little business sense. Never. Never sign away your copyright. It’s your future.

  8. Paige K. Parsons Says:

    You are mistaken in your interpretation of free use upon submission. That’s not what the rules state! If youy read carefully, you’ll see that the NPG gets these rights only if your work is selected for exhibition:

    …worldwide right to use and reproduce all EXHIBITED works for the exhibition publications…

    I don’t exhibit in large enough venues to know how profits from postcards, catalogs and other exhibition related paraphernalia is normally handled, but this hardly seems a trampling of an artist’s rights.