Bad Contest Terms: T.A. Barron’s Once Upon A Villain Flash Fiction Contest


Popular YA/MG author T.A. Barron is running a flash fiction contest.

Stories must be 750 words or fewer, and the contest is accepting submissions through Friday, October 23. Three winners will receive prize packages consisting of books, games, swag, and/or gift cards.

The catch? You guessed it. It’s in the fine print of the contest guidelines. (I wasn’t able to provide a direct link to these, but if you scroll down to the bottom of the contest post there’s a link you can click to see them.)

Here’s my main concern.

While this grant of rights is non-exclusive (you aren’t barred from publishing the story elsewhere), it is also inappropriately sweeping. The contest sponsor (identified in the rules as Thomas A. Barron, LLC) has the right to do anything and everything with your entry, including publishing it and licensing it to others–royalty-free. Barron, LLC can also “modify and make derivative works…and…use any ideas, concepts, know-how, or techniques…for any purpose.” There’s no end point for the grant, which endures even for entries that are disqualified–nor are non-winners released from the grant, making any story submitted to this contest an instant reprint, even if it never gets published for the first time.

Last but certainly not least, entrants must waive moral rights. Moral rights for written work aren’t much-recognized in the USA, so US writers may not be familiar with them–but they include the right of attribution. If you waive your moral rights, your writing can be published without your name–or attributed to someone else.

There’s also this, in the “How to Enter” paragraph: “All entry information and materials become the property of the Sponsor and will not be acknowledged or returned.”

To writers who contacted me about the Once Upon A Villain contest, this suggested that Barron, LLC was trying not just to encumber entrants’ rights, but to seize their actual intellectual property. But that doesn’t really track with the grant of rights paragraph, sweeping as it is, so I’m not so sure. Back in the dinosaur days, when contests involved the submission of paper manuscripts, such provisions were common: they were not intended to make a copyright grab, but rather to spare the contest sponsor the expense of returning all those paper manuscripts. For Once Upon A Villain, of course, all submissions are digital–but there’s a lot of lawyering in these rules, and this language may just be in keeping with the general overkill. Nevertheless, it’s a curious inclusion, and not something you should see these days unless actual physical materials are involved.

I write a lot about contests on this blog. Since the problems are often very similar, my contest posts may seem repetitive; also, most contests are one-and-done, so they pose a limited threat rather than an ongoing one. Plus, it’s pretty rare than any contest sponsor changes its mind about bad contest rules, even when outed (though that has happened).

But contests are common, and writers love them. Many authors are already pretty savvy about this stuff; I became aware of Once Upon A Villain, for instance, via tweets and emails from concerned authors. But not all writers are forearmed–especially younger writers just starting out (Once Upon A Villain features an 18-and-under prize). And any warning reaches only a limited number of people. So I keep putting it out there, so that writers will understand what to look for–and avoid–in contest rules and guidelines…and, hopefully, will get into the habit of always carefully reading the fine print, no matter how dense or boring.


  1. This reminds me of reedsy's weekly writer's prompt contest. Just entering their contest gives them the right to do any and everything with your short story whether you win or not. That's not right. I came very close to entering. Then I read their rules. Right after that, I saw this article. This tells me that I made the right decision. I notice that you promot reedsy on this site. Could it be that their money prohibits you from blowing the whistle on them? Or maybe you haven't taken a good enough look at them.

  2. Given that the form of submission is "leave a comment on this post" I don't think they could even take submissions if the writers didn't grant worldwide republication rights, since that's what "displaying a comment on my blog" is, legally?

    I'm more concerned that the prizes are "valued at" prizes that are essentially free to the competition, and that this extracts free advertising work from aspiring authors.

  3. The How to Enter thing looks like a holdover from postal subs rather than part of the grant of rights; I've seen fairly similar language that just meant "We aren't mailing back the copy you sent us."

    I'm going to post this warning on my tumblr to try and hit some younger writers.

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