ad suggesting work for zero compensationA recent New York Times article, brought to my attention by editor Neil Marr, describes the impact on the author, and of writers in general, of the present internet-inspired activity of asking writers for content with no expectation of compensation.  Usually, the people asking will state that the writer will gain in intangibles like “eyeballs,” people who will read their material, clicks to their pages, media stats that will rack up by their name… and that this is far more valuable than filthy things like money.

The author, Tim Kreider—and I—respectfully disagree with that sentiment.

This unfortunate trope was inspired and promoted by the young and full-of-piss members of the Internet generation, empowered by the newly-discovered web, and impressed by the ability to share information worldwide, at little effort and less cost.  The Information Should Be Free! movement is a direct result of their desire to break down the barriers separating people from knowledge, and make sure everyone has access to everything… a wonderful anarchist utopia for all.

The idea only has one problem: All that information has to be collected or produced by someone… and that someone generally has to eat.  We have a world that revolves around the concept that every living being upon it has to eat, and has to expend energy in order to do so.  Eating doesn’t come free.  Humans, in particular, live in a society designed around the concept of people doing specialized tasks for others, in order for those others to live free of the tasks they do not want to do, so they can concentrate their efforts on the things they do want to do, are (hopefully) good at, and can hopefully offer in turn to others who cannot do that task as well.

We have a system in place to manage the transfer of such efforts from person to person: It’s called money.  When a butcher prepares a steak for you, for instance, you pay the butcher to give you the steak.  When you want your streets to be lit at night, you pay the government a fee (aka tax) to keep the lights on and maintained.  Society has maintained this system for thousands of years  now, and by and large, it’s understandable and works pretty well.

Yet there are some tasks which are not seen by many to be workable in this system… in this case, writing.  Writing is not the same as butchering a piece of meat, or maintaining a lightpost; it is considered a form of art, which, by definition, is assumed to be disconnected from the typical concepts of cost and benefit.  And since art does not adhere to the standards of cost and benefit that other tasks follow, many have decided that it should be divorced from those concepts altogether… that art should cost nothing.

And the rendering of art to electronic media seems to reinforce that suggestion, since we have no established way to pay for “electrons,” web shorthand for the digital files that zip back and forth on our wires, are duplicated with virtually no effort and are stored in multiple iterations in potentially thousands of places at once.  Electronic media is said to have no value, because they are not physical entities like steaks or lightposts, and because they can be replicated infinitely with a practically zero expenditure of energy.

All of which ignores one very important fact: A person still had to create the stuff.

There are two consequences to a creator being told their creations are worthless.  One, as the author points out, is the suggestion that creators create for no compensation… that they should work on a piece of art, and then hand it over without getting a dime for their efforts.  This makes it very hard for that writer to go to the butcher and pay for a steak, or to give the government his taxes to keep the lightposts lit, since they were not given the very compensation society decreed they should get for their efforts on society’s behalf.  People who can’t pay for things tend to go hungry, lose their homes, and sometimes, go to jail.

But the other consequence is far worse for the artist.  As Kreider states:

“Practicalities aside, money is also how our culture defines value, and being told that what you do is of no ($0.00) value to the society you live in is, frankly, demoralizing. Even sort of insulting. And of course when you live in a culture that treats your work as frivolous you can’t help but internalize some of that devaluation and think of yourself as something less than a bona fide grown-up.”

Being told your efforts are worthless has a psychological impact.  Kreider puts a logical face on it, but it’s clear that it has had an impact on him.  As a writer, whose work is often suggested to be of no value, and which has turned up on pirate sites or encouraged to be shared on web forums, I can attest to the psychological impact it’s had on me.

People still seem to look sideways at me when I admit to displeasure at being considered some kind of artistic leper because I actually want to see a profit from my work… or when I express the intention to give up writing if I can’t figure out how to promote my work and get paid.  If I was a butcher or a lightpost maintenance technician, I wouldn’t be expected to work for nothing, nor would I be looked at as if I was crazy if I asked for compensation for my efforts.  But because I’m an artist, I’m not given that same level of civil respect.  Demoralizing?  Devaluing?  Insulted?  With bacon on it.

Kreider states that as long as artists agree to give their work away for free, others will continue to expect all artists to give their work away for free… just as crude boys continue to try to pick up girls by insulting them, because every so often, it actually works.  Therefore, all artists should unite behind an expectation of being directly compensated for their work, and a refusal to give it away for free.  Only in this way will we make clear to others that we deserve the same respect that any butcher or maintenance man gets in being paid for our effort.

Kreider’s opinion piece suggests that those who are asked to create for nothing should respectfully decline, and remind those who ask that their work does have a measurable, practical value.  I’d go a step further and remind those people that you, too, are required to eat, pay rent and pay taxes, just as they do; and that free work with no compensation is something you, as a member of an orderly society, cannot afford.