I sat down and did some quick back-of-the-envelope math to determine how much money I had given up in free work to commercial clients over the twenty-eight years of my photography career. It was staggering. Enough to buy a nicely appointed luxury car. Granted, most of the freebies and favors were from early on, when I was building my reputation and hungry for exposure. Still, it was disconcerting to say the least.

That Was Then, This Is Now.

There was a time when an editorial credit in a magazine was considered a fair trade in place of an actual fee—the idea being that seeing your images, or better yet, a cover published was good for your street cred. Sadly, this does not translate to online publications. The reasons why are a subject of lengthy debate, one you can expect to hear on the podcast in the next two weeks. This article, however, is concerned with when, if ever, you should give away your talent for free.

The Expectation of Free Has Killed the Value of Free.

For nearly a decade, from 1995 to 2005-ish, the mantra “information wants to be free” suffused the internet. This set up a cultural expectation: If it’s online, it’s free. Paradoxically, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) fueled the fire when it brought draconian copyright-infringement charges against teenagers who were downloading free music. People saw the absurdity of the music industry’s actions and rebelled against the corporate overlords by downloading more music for free.

When the Huffington Post launched, its business strategy was to find well-written pieces in the blogosphere, copy and publish them on its own site, and zhoosh up the text with SEO-friendly keywords to increase visibility. Its expiation for purloining the work came in the form of a hyperlink back to the original blog, with an implied “we’re getting you more attention than you would’ve gotten otherwise” shrug. It was utter bullshit, especially because most bloggers never asked to have their work put on the HuffPo site. This was done in concert with inviting people to start their own HuffPo blog, where authors would generate content in exchange for simply being part of the HuffPo brand. “Guilt by association” as a form of barter.

While these examples are among the most notorious, millions of transgressions surrounding the use of digital art (in all its forms, from video to music to writing), including on social media, have conspired to devalue the benevolence of artists who choose to give away their work.

This compels us to form a new ideology around our creations as intellectual property. As a rule, you should never hand over anything to the commercial sector without considering the following parameters:

  • Will this assignment take you someplace you’ve never been at no cost to you, and/or will it grant you access to someone you’ve always dreamed about meeting or something you’ve always dreamed about seeing?
  • Is the project profile ultra high in the sense that, no matter how you look at it in its final form, your name will be closely associated with the work? If there’s any chance your name is going to get lost, it’s not worth it.
  • Friends, family members, and ex-lovers, see part 1 of this series.

Thankfully, the era of free is winding down. It is a failed cultural experiment. The media is bringing to light the absurdity of free as an expectation, and organizations like the WGA and the Freelancer Club are educating and lobbying their constituents against giving away anything for free. Unfortunately, cultural mores like this—steeped in a utopian soup brewed back in the early days of the burgeoning internet—are hard to eradicate. Yet eradicate it we must, if we are to bring back the value of free.