How Bad Contest Entry Rules Can be Mitigated: The Medium Writer’s Challenge

That’s right, boys and girls–it’s another of my posts about hinky contest rules.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know I publish a lot of these. That’s not because I like repeating myself…it’s because bad contest legalese is depressingly common, especially in contests conducted by high-profile organizations or individuals, such as HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” short story contest, or T.A. Barron’s Once Upon a Villain flash fiction contest, or the Sunday Times/Audible Short story award, or any number of others. Because it’s so common, though, it never hurts to put out another warning….especially when a contest offers the kind of prize money that’s sure to attract droves of writers.

In a twist, though, I’m not just going to talk about greedy legalese, but also about how one contest sponsor responded to criticism and made it better.

The Medium Writers Challenge is an especially rich contest, with a $50,000 grand prize, $10,000 for four finalists (one of the finalists will be the grand prize winner, so one person will actually win $60,000), and 100 honorable mentions who will each receive $100.

To enter, writers choose a prompt, create an essay of 500 words or more, and publish it on Medium. A prestigious slate of judges that includes such luminaries as Roxane Gay and Natalie Portman will select four finalists, one for each prompt, and then choose the grand prize winner and the honorable mentions. The deadline to enter is August 24, 2021.

Moving on to the fine print, namely this paragraph of the official rules:

I got several emails and some social media pings about this paragraph yesterday. The concern was with the license writers grant simply by entering the contest, the wording of which gives Medium “an irrevocable, royalty-free, worldwide, nonexclusive, sublicensable, assignable” license to do pretty much anything it wants with any entry, whether or not it’s a winning entry.

This kind of language is extremely common, especially, as I’ve mentioned, in high-profile contests. The intent isn’t so much a nefarious scheme to steal writers’ rights or bind them to eternal servitude, as it is a shortcut for contest sponsors, who don’t have to fuss around with contracts for winners because they’ve already agreed to terms. It’s very easy to mitigate such language–for instance, by releasing non-winning entrants from the license once the winners are declared–but, carelessly or lazily or just sharkily, depending on how many lawyers formulated the rules, many contest sponsors don’t bother, even though it means that they retain rights they likely have no interest in and no intention of ever using.

In Medium’s case, though, they did take steps to mitigate. Note the second line of the paragraph, which limits the license to one year from the end of the contest period (presumably that’s the August 24 deadline). In other words, this is not the perpetual license that some other contests demand: it has an endpoint, after which it expires.

Here’s the interesting thing, though. Paragraph 10 didn’t always read the way it does now. This is the original version, the one that got people upset:

Note the difference: there’s no limit on the grant period. In this version of the contest rules, the license really is perpetual.

Writers asked questions and spoke out on social media. To its credit, Medium took notice.

This is what can result when an organization re-thinks pointless legalese. I wish that happened more often.

Don’t get me wrong. Medium’s license language is still excessive, in my opinion, because there really is no reason for them to retain non-winners’ rights once the winners are declared. Still, a year is better than forever.

Entrants also need to consider what they’re granting if they do win. There’s a lot of potential uses Medium can make of their work (it isn’t clear to me that the license language limits Medium’s use of entries in the way the third tweet claims), including creating derivative works and “incorporat[ing] the Submission, in whole or in part, into other works.” $10,000 is a decent payday for that kind of grant. But is $100?

As always, read–and make sure you understand–the fine print.


  1. "$10,000 is a decent payday for that kind of grant. But is $100?"

    Or $0?

    I have trouble explaining this part to people. Assume Medium is honorable and well-intentioned. Assume they will do nothing with the rights. They still have the rights. That means legally you can't do anything else with the work if the other projects requires exclusive rights.

  2. It's appalling how many contests have this same rights-grabbing language in their terms, and equally appalling how excited authors get about the contests without reading said terms. Last week I lit into The W3 Awards (aimed at podcasters) for the same kind of predatory language, plus their steep entry fees PLUS the fact that the winners have to BUY their own damn trophy. Got no response, but oh, my – the number of people that were responding enthusiastically to the announcement. Jaw-dropping.

  3. mrsmig,

    I hadn't heard of the W3 Awards, so I took a look. Except for the fact that they name the judges (and I seriously doubt that those busy professionals will be winnowing through the thousands of entries; if they're involved beyond having their headshots on the website, it's only at the end of the process), these awards have all the hallmarks of a profiteering awards program (a program that's all about making money for the sponsor and very little about honoring creators): high entry fees, dozens of entry categories (to maximize entries), no real prizes (which enables the contest sponsor to keep more of the money brought in by entry fees), and the opportunity for entrants to buy merchandise (not just the trophies, but whatever's in the W3 Store, which I couldn't access because only entrants can log in).

    The fact that winners have to buy their awards is really the icing on the cake: that just screams "vanity award" to me.

    The sponsoring organization, Academy of Interactive & Visual Arts, runs two other high-entry fee awards programs with similar characteristics. Multiple contests are another indication of an awards profiteer. AIVA itself looks pretty iffy to me; it's an "invitation only" organization that appears to have no other function than to run the three awards programs. On a websearch, the only references to it are in connection with the awards. I may be more suspicious than the average bear, but this whole thing looks pretty bogus to me.

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