From the “are you effing kidding me” department.

Let’s play a design game. You want a logo for your new start-up. Your local design firm is

a) too expensive or

b) too limited in the number of options they’re willing to present.

What to do. What to do.

“Oh snap!”

There’s always these logo design contests that you’ve heard so much about.

Ethics aside, plagiarism aside, whiny designer moaning aside..

Anyhoo, you plunk down your 300 clams to host a contest – on 99designs let’s say – and the platform takes about $100 of that while dangling a $200 bounty to “their” designers as a prize. You feel kinda bad about all the kids in your contest that aren’t going to get paid for their hard work, but it is what it is.

Nobody is forcing them to enter, am I right?

Moving on – you receive a ton of entries – some good, some bad, some dreadful – but you’re able to pare the submissions down to that one lovely design. The winning designer – probably some kid from somewhere in Asia or Europe – gets his or her $200 and Bob, as they say, is your Uncle. Fast forward almost two years – the ‘almost’ part is key, say 23 months and two weeks – and you need new some artwork done. Nothing too complicated – a sell sheet, a Facebook profile image, whatever. Your local design firm would be too expensive for that too, you reckon.

“Hold on!”

What about that kid who won your contest on 99designs? Maybe they’re up for the challenge. 99designs has argued how follow-up work is a major opportunity for designers and part of the ‘value’ they receive for not actually getting paid, so all should be groovy. After rummaging through your computer history you find the kid’s details and contact him or her by e-mail, Twitter, Skype, whatever, and describe your project. They’re eager to do it, the price is right, so you shoot them over a hundred bucks by PayPal. They fire you back a great Facebook cover image and you’re all set, right? Well, not quite. You now owe 99designs a minimum of $2500.

“Say what?!!”

Yep. 99designs will claim that you owe them a minimum of $2500.

“Ahahaa. GTFO.”

Nope. It’s true. Here’s the pertinent part of their TOS:

99designs-exclusitivity-disclaimerLet’s break it down: You, the contest holder, are now obliged to run all your design work with the kid who won your design contest 23 months ago, through the 99designs platform (where they again take a cut,) or you, the customer, have to pay them 99designs, $2500. Guess labor standards laws ain’t what they used to be (though, between you and me, I’d love to see this one hit the courts, where judges have always taken a grim view of “non-compete” type contracts with designers who’ve actually been hired by actual design firms.)

99designs seem to have lifted this idea from freelance platform O-Desk and are even using the comparison to defend this new change against criticism from any users who protest the change. Just a few things though – all gigs on O-Desk are paid. 99designs contests are speculative and other than a few very specific circumstances, only the winning designer gets paid. Everybody else works for free. We could also quibble that O-desk commission is 10%. 99designs ‘take’ from contests – we’re familiar with the logo design variety – start at around 30% and go up from there.

And oh yeah…

Remember when crowdsourcing platforms defended their MO saying “everybody knows what they’re getting into”? Sure, O-desk was always a fee-based platform so everybody did know what they were getting into. Late September of last year, 99designs announced that they had 850,000 designers on their platform. One supposes those numbers have only increased since then, so we’re probably over a million range. This change to 99designs was announced back in March so if we accept those numbers at face value (though there’s a lot of evidence we shouldn’t) that means that around 900,000 designers had already signed up to 99designs without any inkling that these terms were about to apply to them. Or, coming full circle, what they were getting into. And a lot of them who have been working for free – either in hopes of winning a design contest or meeting new clients – are now “owned” by 99designs the minute anyone so much as “meets” them through the platform. A platform that is happy to sell them to their customers.

For $2500 a head. Yay, the distruptive economy I guess.

Footnote: I sat on this post since March, when the change was rolled out believing it was a mistake, an early April Fool’s prank or would have been dialed back at this point. We’re halfway through August, so I guess it’s a thing. Mind blowing, but a thing.