Is Working For Free A Threat Or An Opportunity?

Google has asked prominent illustrators if they’d like to create new skins for the company’s Chrome browser. Here’s the catch: Google isn’t offering any money for the designs. Google expects artists to contribute for free. Understandably, many illustrators and artists are protesting; a rich company like Google can afford to pay, and asking people to work for free devalues the work.

Stan Schroeder at Mashable picks up the case:

There’s a reason, however, why they aren’t offering monetary compensation for skinning Chrome. Google didn’t set the price for such
work at (nearly) zero; the community did… even professional illustrators and designers should understand that they don’t get paid for these types of projects because Google is cheap, but because there’s a huge community of artists who have
been doing it for free for years.

Free_The_word_200x200.gifThere’s always been a tension over the tangible and intangible value of work and compensation. If I come to work for you and you pay me a decent salary and I become a star, I’m likely to think my employer got a hell of a bargain and should pay me more because of my stardom. My bosses take the position that they made me a star by giving me the opportunity,  training, resources and platform to become one and I owe them. Who’s right?

In the old model, we’ve upped the demand for my services and I get to ask for more compensation from my employer or I can go elsewhere. But now that the internet has made production and distribution platforms cheap and accessible by anyone, many more people have the opportunity to go out and become stars at whatever they do.It also means competition increases, and things that many can do drop in value.

Why would skilled workers work for free? To develop their skills, to show what they can do to others, to improve something that matters to them, to contribute to a community that matters to them, for social status. There are lots of reasons. The point is: if people are willing to do something without being paid money, others won’t pay money for it. Just as important to remember, though: people wouldn’t work for no money if they weren’t getting something else out of it, whether it’s status, personal promotion or just satisfaction for doing it.

I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t be paid money for their work, but the fact that many are not only willing but happy do so, is a reality anyone in the new economy has to deal with. The choice for anyone running a business is one of opportunity cost or advantage. Giving away something for free gets a bigger audience; charging for something means a smaller audience. If your business model is built on needing a larger audience, then
there’s pressure to lower the cost. If, on the other hand, your
business model is built on the kind of audience you have, then size of your audience probably doesn’t matter so much..

Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchly succinctly defined the problem in a reader chat this morning:

We fund our news operations from revenues generated largely by
advertising. Online advertisers pay for an audience–the larger, the
better. If we put up a wall that readers would have to pay to cross,
and then readers didn’t cross it, our advertising revenues would
probably suffer.

Probably for sure. Newspapers have a problem of scale and a business model based on large scale audience. For individual workers, the kind of audience you need (ie: your employer) has always been more important. But that now is changing too. Last word to Schroeder:

There’s no reason for pro artists, designers and illustrators to fear.
Some aspects of their work – those that can be crowdsourced or those
that aren’t hard to do (perhaps with the help of technology) – will
lose in value. But there will always be a market for professionals,
because most of what they’re doing cannot be done by just anyone.
It’s important, however, that professionals in any trade learn,
understand and ultimately adapt to the fact that social media and new
tools that the Internet has provided us with are changing the landscape
of their profession.

Is this true? I’m not sure. Where’s the market for professional critics and reporters and editors right now?

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  1. dzinegrp says

    Simple answers to simple questions:
    This is Google outrage. Large corporations and institutions have purchased and displayed art in new buildings for decades – centuries, really. Why? Because it inhances their business image and it's good PR to support the arts.
    I think what we have here is a low level, young, ignorant Google geek team trying to impress their bosses by getting something for nothing.
    It really is sickening to witness it.

  2. says

    There are numerous similar calls to artists out there. Each time they do not pay the artist, or even more crass, ask for an entry fee.
    Sometimes clients assume some kid just out of art school looking to make a name will do it for free, why pay a pro? Would you select a mechanic or plumber this way? The honest answer is yes maybe if you trust they will do a good job. However I think there is another issue at play and that revolves around the way we assign value to creative activity and production.
    The other side is funding – suddenly once one has to pay a fair and living wage the project might be dropped. Well intentioned projects often can't find, or justify funding. This fundamental misunderstanding of the function of culture and creativity in American society is something we need to change.
    I mean, give me a break, or talk me down if you want. I believe the arts are the hallmark of a healthy, productive, affluent and vibrant society – and this is a symbiotic relationship – we can not have a healthy economy without arts and culture as the main course.
    In lieu of sending an entry make an investment in your career – your assignment – dream up the wildest artistic project you can think of and a list of 10 gatekeepers you will share the idea with.
    Let me know what happens, and I'll do the same!

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