Last week I went over my reasons for why Dawn and I have become leery of submitting to paid entry contests involving our creative work. Even if they’re not intended as scams, some of them just seem like little more than what could be termed “vanity awards”, where if you rise to the top of the heap you get to put a little logo on your comic or whatnot – “Winner of the 2012 Golden Shuzbut Award for Best New Fiction!”

Sounds impressive, unless of course you’re dealing with an industry professional who asks, “What the hell is the Golden Shuzbut Award?”, and even more embarrassingly may follow this with the further question, “Why should I care?”. How does the fact you won this Golden Shuzbut have any more bearing on your credentials as a creative artist than that mug you received for Christmas last year with “World’s Greatest Nephew!” ?

Well, if you were the World’s Greatest Nephew of Steven Spielberg, that might be something, but let’s stay away from nepotism for the time being. The point is that even if you win the contest you paid to enter, the end result might well be no more impressive to the world at large than if you’d just taken your money to an engraver and had a nice plaque made with your name and “#1 Artist!”

The question of whether or not a contest is worth being part of is such a big one that the Writer Beware site of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America has an entire section devoted to helping aspiring writers make the judgment call. Just having an entry fee doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth the time, but there are other pitfalls to consider as well.

For instance, winning can have far worse consequences than just receiving a consensually insignificant award. Much, much worse.

You might win a contract.

Well, wait… how is that bad? Isn’t the whole point to garner some fame, recognition, and (hopefully) money? A guaranteed contract with people who will promote you and your ideas to the world sounds like the perfect reward!

This is where it gets sticky, though. What are the terms of this contract? And does participating in the contest mean you have no right of refusal should you win? That’s a big red flag to look out for, because you could be locked in legally just by signing up, and you may not like the end result.

In general, I think independent artists nowadays understand that copyright is an important thing and not to be given up lightly. But just recently a fellow webcomicker brought to my attention a contract award where the organizers made a big deal of the artist retaining their copyright… but their company will control exclusive commercial distribution rights, in all forms, for the next eight years. The artist will enjoy 20% of the net profits of those enterprises.

Which still might sound pretty tempting to a person struggling to pay their rent, right? The problem is you might be giving up a lot for very little. “Net profits”, for example, are not the same as “gross profits”, and there is a very clear illustration of why they are risky to have in your contract at this link. One of the highest grossing movies in history, Return of the Jedi, is making some people very rich and leaving others very poor, and the reason why is right there in the term “highest grossing”. Due to Hollywood accounting shenanigans, it’s still considered unprofitable, which in this case is to say that it made no net profit once the ahem, “operating expenses” were tallied.

That’s pretty sobering to consider, but hey, at least Peter Mayhew has some fame and still gets to be a special guest at conventions, right? He was part of something really special and has fans all over the world, even if he never got rich off of it.

Well, consider this. In the case above, they are paying you exactly zilch for the potential to profit off of your idea. In fact, I believe you do have to pay to enter the contest, but even if you didn’t, the key term here is “potential”. What happens if they just decide to sit on it and do nothing? Was there any clause requiring them to actually do something with the property? Sure, people get paid by film companies wanting to option the rights to their ideas all the time, and a lot of times those companies don’t end up doing anything with it. I have one friend whose graphic novel has been optioned not just once, but twice by different film companies, the second picking it up after the first sat on it for too long and the rights expired.

Is he angry that he never got to see his ideas make it to the silver screen? Nope. If the second company doesn’t do anything for long enough, the rights expire again, and every time another company comes to him with an option deal, he gets paid thousands of dollars again. You’ll notice there’s two important factors at work here, though, which is that he’s getting paid up front, and the terms of expiration aren’t eight years, but the standard 12-18 months the film industry works with.

Also, hell, the whole legal structure of “optioning” is different. Optioning is not so much buying the rights as buying a window of time where they have the exclusive right to cut a further deal, assuming they can put a production together. If they can’t, that’s their fault and they gave you thousands of dollars for nothing. Too bad for them, but great for you, especially if another suitor comes knocking.

Now I admit I haven’t gone over the contest contract with a legal expert, but these organizers don’t sound like they’d be out thousands of dollars if they did jack crap with what you gave them. You might say it’s in their best interests to at least try, but how hard will they try? For how long? All eight of those years? Sure, you still own the copyright to your work, but how much does that matter if the only way you’re legally allowed to profit off it is through them, and any net profits (much less 20% of net profits) may never exist at all even if the IP proves very popular? I’m guessing since you still own the copyright you might be able to give your work away for free, but you better not have so much as one Project Wonderful ad on your website.

Commercial distribution in all forms is a pretty draconian clause, when you think about it. Are they really the best company possible to handle every potential licensing agreement for the next several years? Games, books, movies, comics, action figures, maybe even potential media that hasn’t even surfaced yet? Again, you at very least signed away your right to deal with movie companies yourself, now all that tasty option money is theirs and you don’t get a dime.

And even if they are completely sincere about making you and your work the next big thing, there’s the spectre of a company going bankrupt and being bought by someone else. Eight years is a long time, particularly where a new venture is concerned, and unless there are specific clauses in your contract, it does not expire because it changed hands, and the new owners may have even less interest in promoting you.

It’s possible with terms like this that you could still get lucky, but if you don’t, you might end up just as broke and unknown as you are now, and with the added burden that you no longer are the sole custodian of that wonderful idea you nurtured. Even promises of copyright retention aren’t enough to just nod and sign, and you had better be very aware of the terms & conditions you’re agreeing to just by entering, which might in some cases be as good as signing that contract in blood in the eyes of the courts.

If you win, of course. But sometimes, it does seem like winning can be far worse than losing.