Can We Get a Do-Over? Harper’s Bazaar Removes Predatory Rights Language For Its 2019 Short Story Competition

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Yesterday, a number of writers alerted me to this writing competition for UK authors:

Harper’s Bazaar has a proud tradition of publishing the very best in original literary fiction, including stories by Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, Ali Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Continuing this legacy, we are happy to launch our annual short-story competition once again, inviting published and non-published writers to follow in the footsteps of these literary greats.

The winner of this 2,500-word short story competition will receive a two-night stay at Brownber Hall, Yorkshire, along with “the chance to see their work published”. The theme is “Liberty.” Entry is free, and the competition is open until midnight on March 15, 2019.

A publishing credit from Harper’s would certainly be something to boast about. But there was a problem. Specifically, the grant of rights, which the entry guidelines described thus (my bolding):

By entering the competition and in consideration for Hearst publishing your entry, you assign to Hearst the entire worldwide copyright in your entry for all uses in all print and non-print media and formats, including but not limited to all rights to use your entry in any and all electronic and digital formats, and in any future medium hereafter developed for the full period of copyright therein, and all renewals and extensions thereof, any rental and lending rights and retransmission rights and all rights of a like nature wherever subsisting.

In other words, merely by entering this competition, Harper’s was asking you to surrender your copyright, and all the rights that copyright includes (which meant that you could never sell or publish your story anywhere else), for zero financial compensation. Moreover, there was no language in the competition guidelines to ensure that the grant of rights would be released if you didn’t win.

That’s a hell of a predatory rights grab for a competition that doesn’t even guarantee publication to the winner–only “the chance” of it. What’s especially egregious is that there really is no benefit to Harper’s of holding copyrights, rather than merely licensing publishing rights. For the winning story, a conventional grant of publication rights would surely do just as well. For non-winning stories, why lock up rights at all?

I wrote this post yesterday. I don’t know if Harper’s had a sudden epiphany, or if it got wind that writers were pissed off…

…but this morning, when I re-read the competition guidelines just to be 100% sure everything I wrote was accurate (I always double-check in this way before I publish), I discovered that…guess what? The copyright language was gone. Poof. Harper’s guidelines for this competition now include no grant of rights–or indeed any language addressing rights at all.

It’s great that Harper’s retracted its copyright grab (though without acknowledging its mistake). But why include the grab in the first place? I’m continually amazed at publications that run these kinds of competitions with these kinds of predatory terms. In some cases it’s greed or legal overreach. In a few cases, the publications don’t understand their own guidelines language. But often, I think, it’s just carelessness, or maybe heedlessness. Writers only skim guidelines, right? Especially if they’re published as one looooooong block of text in italic font with no paragraph breaks. And it’s just a 2,500 word story that the magazine may not even publish. So who cares?

It’s a reminder, yet again, to read (and be sure you understand) the fine print.

Here’s a screenshot of the original guidelines, with the copyright language down at the bottom of the screenshot. The link is to a cached version.

UPDATE 1/19/20: The contest is open again for entries. The theme this year is “Summer”, and the prize is a two-night stay at Grantley Hall in Yorkshire and “the chance” of publication.

Harper’s has not tried to insert a copyright grab into its Terms and Conditions again, but there is rights language:

This, as I’ve discussed many times in relation to many different contests, is a red flag. Simply by entering the contest, you are granting Harper’s parent company, Hearst (which owns many publications in addition to Harper’s) the right to publish and syndicate your entry without any compensation to you…and there is no corresponding language releasing you from this grant of rights after the winner has been announced and the contest is over.

There’s also nothing to indicate whether this is an exclusive or non-exclusive grant. Since it’s safest, where there’s ambiguity, to assume a maximalist interpretation of legalese like this, you should consider that if you enter this contest, you may be giving up your right to publish your story anywhere else, ever.

Also note that, per the Terms and Conditions, “Once entered, entries cannot be returned or withdrawn.”


  1. R. Jean Bell,

    Thanks for commenting–there is indeed problematic wording in the current contest's Terms and Conditions. I've updated my post to reflect this.

  2. Can you check this year's wording please? I saw someone tweet the contest, read the rights, and I'm concerned. But I'm not good at this.

  3. I think they changed them. Big publishers often get greedy with rights, but that kind of blatantly deceptive behavior really wouldn't make sense. If you agree to something that's in writing, and the publisher then says "Oh no, we meant something completely different even though we didn't write it down", you'd have a valid legal claim against them. That's the kind of shenanigans that wouldn't surprise me in the small press world, but for a big outfit like Harper's (which is owned by Hearst), I just can't see it.

  4. "… or indeed any language addressing rights at all."

    So did they actually 'change' them – or simply hide them? And will it pop back up after people enter?

    I have no horse in this race, but I don't trust that racetrack …

  5. Same old, same old … don't do the right thing until you get caught out. Thank you for doing the catching. 🙂

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