This is an interesting article about the motives behind and reputability of contests generally, but in terms of fine print for contests and websites, here are a few things to look out for:
- What are they allowed to do with your content? Edit and annotate and print without approval?
- Do you keep copyright to your content, or is it turned over to them when you enter? (Do they own all intellectual property submitted?)
- Do they have world distribution rights? Forever?
- Will you ever be allowed to publish the work elsewhere? Without needing permission from them?
- Do you have to pay to enter?
The terms offered are often non-negotiable; take it or leave it. With magazines and websites, if there's anything troubling, it's worth asking and trying to get better terms.
Most likely, you'll end up having to weigh the benefits of continuing as-is vs. dropping it, which is ok - it's not a bad thing to turn over rights in a work to be published (that's what a publishing contract is, after all!), as long as you know what you're getting into and why!
But you should NEVER just blindly submit.
Here are a few contests and websites I picked out as examples of fine print you'd want to have read before entering (not to warn against or signal anyone out, just because they popped up while Googling and had fine print I could use as example):
Arizona Writers Mystery Contest
Requirements contain the line "If you have not heard from us by then, you are free to send your story elsewhere." Does this mean while they're considering you can't submit the story to other contests, or contests and publishers, or agents, or...? This is a situation I'd ask.
Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award
Paragraph 5: Grant of Rights: Regardless of if you win or not, you agree to negotiate publishing rights with them exclusively for 30 days if they want to publish, and they have matching terms (meaning, even if they offer, and you get another offer, they have the right to top that offer and you can't accept another lesser offer - which isn't good, because it's just weighing money vs. house and marketing etc). They can also edit the formatting of your entry without approval. Your agent also can't send it out anywhere (for consideration for publication) while it is being considered for the contest.
You retain ownership, however: "You do, however, hereby grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content, your name, and your screen name on the Website and elsewhere in any media now known or hereafter devised, along with the right to excerpt, analyze, and index your Content." These terms do expire upon deletion/removal, though.
My best advice: if you're agented, talk with your agent before entering any contest or posting online, and be sure to get the green light. If you aren't (and even if you are), carefully read the fine print, and make sure you are ok with it all. I can't say enough: the very last thing you want to do is tragically tie your publishing hands up and close the door to opportunities unknowingly!