Thanks for an interesting question. Let me begin my answer with the
usual, but important, disclaimer:
As it says at the bottom of the page, Google Answers is not substitute
for professional advice.
Although I am confident in the information I am presenting here, it's
always the case that a recent or developing law case could change the
rules of game. I suggest consulting with a legal professional before
going ahead with your plans.
That said, there are certainly no shortage of online contests and
sweepstakes, as you can see here:
where they list thousands of online sweepstakes.
The key to hosting these, and keeping them legal, is that the
sweepstakes must be free!
'Free' means more than just no money is charged. It also means...
--the 'free' option must be made readily visible to users of the site
--the 'free' option must be easy to implement (e.g. if it's only free
if they show up in person in your office in Podunk, then that is not
--the 'free' option should pretty much be no-strings-attached.
This last matter means that you cannot ask contestants for, say, a
whole lot of marketing information, or require them to fill out
detailed questionnaires. The minimum information needed to enter the
contest is the best approach (e.g. tell us your name and email address
so we can contact you if you win).
I interpret this as meaning that you should go easy on any use of the
email lists, other than for winner-notification. If you want to use
the emails (or other contact information) for future marketing, at the
very least, give contestants an opt-in check-off box where they can
let you know they'd like to receive materials.
Other things to be aware of:
--have participants attest to being over 18
--large prizes (over several thousand dollars) may trigger
contest-registration requirements with authorities in a few states
(notably, NY, FL, and RI). I'm assuming your prize level will be
under these limits, however.
--rules should be clearly accessible on your site, and should clearly
explain what the prize is, how a winner will be chosen, how many
--limit contestants to residents of the US, to avoid having to figure
out laws and restrictions in other countries.
--avoid use of the word 'contest' which can legally imply a game of
skill without a strong element of chance.
Here's a link to an online contest that very simply covers most of the
main elements I just described:
Note, particularly, provisions 12-14 in the Rules, which are intended
to lessen the sponsor's liability in the event anything goes wrong.
And things CAN go wrong, as covered in gory detail in this article:
Daily News Sweeps Mess Offers Lesson
Note that the above firm also specializes in sweepstakes law, so they
are certainly a possible firm to contact for further advice in this
Here's another overview article, also from a law firm with a specialty
in this area:
Here's another very useful article (even though dated from a few years
ago) that covers some of the main elements of law regarding online
contests and sweepstakes:
Online Contest or Illegal Lottery?
There's a lot written here about "games of skill", but I'd steer clear
of trying to get your event under this particular umbrella -- see the
example of picking winners of sports events to see some of the
I trust this information fully answers your question.
However, please don't rate this answer until you have everything you
need. If there's anything more I can do for you, just post a Request
for Clarification, and I'm happy to assist you further.
search strategy -- Google search on:
sweepstakes OR contests law