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Be Wary of the Wellcome Photography Prize


The Wellcome Trust is the world’s second largest charitable trust with an endowment of approximately £23.2 billion (~$30 billion). For the past 20 years, it has produced a photo contest called the Wellcome Image Awards, and this year, it rebranded the contest as the Wellcome Photography Prize.

[Update on 8/24/2018: The Wellcome Trust updated their terms in response to this article to limit their usage.]

The Prize is free to enter, and images can be submitted into one of four categories. Each category winner receives £1,250 while the overall winner receives a prize of £15,000 (~USD$19,000). Furthermore, the winners and shortlisted entries will be displayed at the Lethaby Gallery of the University of the Arts London.

My company, Photoshelter, has evaluated contests for many years, and the Wellcome Photography Prize passes muster on several fronts: no entry fee, big cash prize, and an exhibition.

But the terms and conditions (T&C) are onerous:

Copyright holders grant to Wellcome a royalty-free, non-exclusive, worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable and sub-licensable right to copy, adapt, distribute, perform and use their images in any media (including social media, online and print) in connection with Wellcome’s charitable mission, including in relation to all promotional activities for the prize and for commercial purposes. Copyright holders will be credited and Wellcome will offer the copyright holder a reasonable fee should Wellcome make use of their image on merchandise which generates a revenue for Wellcome.

The T&C is better than contests like the Smithsonian’s, which allows them to use images on merchandise without compensation. But the merchandise stipulation is hardly worth bragging rights.

The most photographer-friendly contests limit image rights to the promotion of the contest for a fixed period of time (three years is typical for progressively minded contests). But Wellcome’s T&C suggest the contest raison d’etre is to generate a library of contemporary science images for the Trust to use without compensation in perpetuity.

Many past winners have been non-professional photographers. It is not uncommon for researchers and scientists to submit images relevant to their fields of expertise because, in a sense, those images act as marketing and raises awareness for their work. A cynic might even suggest that a winning image by a scientist might carry a slight advantage in recognition for Wellcome’s grant-making process (there’s no proof of this).

The Wellcome Trust has a noble mission and it has disbursed billions of dollars in scientific research grants and funding since its inception. A contest is an effective cattle call for images that likely generates PR and a broader range of images than an RFP aimed at professional photographers.

But the Trust should limit its rights grab to using the images in connection with the contest, and properly license images for its marketing use to support photography, and ensure that high-quality images in a range of locales with varying subject matter continue to be created. Organizations many orders of magnitude smaller than Wellcome license images at fair market rates and track the image usage across their enterprise. Surely, Wellcome can do the same.

Until that time, photographers should be wary of the Wellcome Photography Prize and its less-than-welcoming terms and conditions.

About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter, which regularly publishes resources for photographers. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article was also published here.