Why You Should Always Read the Fine Print of Contest Entry Rules

Here’s a good reason to always read the fine print when you’re thinking of entering a literary contest: this contest from UK-based SFX magazine.

Many aspiring writers think that entering literary contests is a way to build a list of writing credits. For the most part, I disagree. Of course there are prestigious contests, where a win serves as a professional credit–the YA novel contest run by Delacorte, for instance, where the prize is publication–but of the many, many contests out there, few have this kind of clout. Winning a contest run by an obscure ezine or a local writers’ group won’t cut any ice with agents and editors, not just because the editors and agents won’t have heard of the contests, but because they know that small contests are much less likely to employ rigorous judging standards. In my opinion, a writer’s time is better spent on submitting to legitimate publishing venues than on entering contests.

The SFX contest looks to be one of the rare exceptions. The winner and runners-up will be published in an anthology brought out by Gollancz, a large and well-respected UK publisher. There’s no question that inclusion in such an anthology would count as a professional writing credit.

However, the contest has some noxious rules. Originally, the grant of rights read as follows:

All entries will become the property of Future Publishing Limited on its receipt of them and will not be returned. Upon submission of their stories to the address set out at rule 2, entrants irrevocably assign to Future Publishing Limited all intellectual property rights that they have in any part of the world in their stories and waive all their moral rights. Future Publishing Limited reserves the right to edit any story as it sees fit for the purpose of publishing the story in the SFX short story compilation.

Under this grant of rights, all entrants–not just winners–would have been giving Future Publishing (SFX’s parent company) copyright. Just by entering the contest, writers would have been relinquishing all rights to their stories. Future Publishing would have been able to publish any of the stories, anywhere, anytime, without attribution or compensation to the author, forever.

Apparently as a result of discussion on one of their message boards, SFX recently revised the grant of rights. The clause now reads:

Upon submission of a story to the email address set out at rule 2, an entrant grants to Future Publishing Limited a perpetual non-exclusive, worldwide licence to publish the story in any of its magazines or any licensed editions thereof, or in any other format or via any other medium. All intellectual property rights in the story shall remain with the entrant save as set out in these terms and conditions. All entrants shall waive their moral rights in their story in respect of any use of the story by Future or any of Future’s licensees in accordance with the licence granted herein. Future Publishing Limited reserves the right to edit any story as it sees fit for the purpose of publishing the story in the SFX short story compilation. [Clarified 24 January 2006]

But this is still a problem. Writers do keep their copyrights, and the non-exclusive license means that the writer can try to sell the story elsewhere. However, just by entering, writers are still granting Future Publishing the right to use the story anywhere, anytime, without compensation, forever. There’s also the issue of waiving moral rights. US writers may not be familiar with moral rights, since the US doesn’t recognize them, but they are important elsewhere in the world, including Europe. Among other things, they protect the writer’s right to attribution. Waiving moral rights suggests that the publisher could publish any of the entrants’ stories without the author’s name.

Bottom line: SFX is stepping back from its copyright grab, but every other problematic aspect of the grant of rights is still in place.

SFX is a good magazine. Gollancz is a great publisher. But the grant of rights is exploitive–and unnecessary. For instance, why does SFX’s parent company need the rights to all the entries, as opposed to just the entries actually published in the anthology? Unfortunately, new writers are much too willing to let themselves be exploited for the sake of a publishing opportunity–but I’d urge anyone thinking about entering this contest to think again.

Edited to add: I’ve been told (by Writer Beware’s very own Law Shark) that under UK law, moral rights can’t be waived for works that aren’t specifically commissioned. Nevertheless, if Future Publishing ever did act on the waiver, you’d probably have to take legal action to get the waiver nullified.


  1. I know you posted this more than a year ago, but I just found the thread doing a google search regarding irrevocably assigning rights for photography. Unfortunately, many photo contests use similar wording, and you’ve really helped me decide to steer clear of those contests in particular. Thank you for the info!

  2. Wow-that’s pretty seriously unfriendly toward the pro or the hobby-writer, alike.

    Thanks, V–I hadn’t seen this one, yet.

  3. Having been a staff journo on a few Future Publishing magazines in the past, this does not surprise me at all.

    Anyone writing for leisure magazines in the UK are well advised to get someone to look over the small print, not only of your words – but also you image. Do you want your photo used in the mag for ever, and often with a new name to your face?

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