A Museum Will Have Me Pickled for Posterity: The Free Problem

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There much chatter along the InterWebs regarding the expectation Google has that artists will draw “skins” for its new Chrome browser without compensation. That one of the wealthiest companies on earth apparently thinks nothing — or at least not twice — of asking some of the lowliest, most perennially overlooked contributors in our capitalist system to do their work gratis is pretty outrageous and the chorus of wonderment even more than outright disapproval is fast growing. Doug McLennan, on his blog Diacritical, tackled the issue directly today and, as is his wont, he tied it to the issue of writers and editors also working on free on such endeavors as, well, blogs and websites. I think the headline he chose for his essay, Is Working For Free A Threat Or An Opportunity?, is rather a wink-wink, nudge-nudge, because no one disputes the fact that it is both. Here’s a quick excerpt from McLennan’s post:

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…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?

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.

…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..

Elsewhere in his post, McLennan cites what some other people are saying, including this post and this post, but what’s most salient here is how McLennan brings the subject back around not only to what artists do but what writers and editors do as well. This whole issue is precisely why journalism remains in a fiscal tailspin: “Where’s the market for professional critics and reporters and editors right now?,” he writes.

It might also be useful to take a look at this excerpt from a June 15 story in the New York Times on the matter. There is a fellow named Gary Taxali, says the article, a well-published Toronto-based illustrator who

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…received a call in April from a member of Google’s marketing department. According to Mr. Taxali, the Google representative explained that the project will let users customize Google Chrome pages with artist-designed “skins” in their borders.

“The first question I asked,” Mr. Taxali said in a recent interview, “is ‘What’s the fee?'”

Mr. Taxali said that when he was told Google would pay nothing, he declined.

In the ensuing weeks, a tide of indignation toward Google swelled among illustrators, who stay connected through Drawger, a Web site.

In a posting to Drawger on April 28, Mr. Taxali bemoaned the Google request – and that some struggling publications were reducing fees to illustrators by nearly half.

“So for you, I give you a special salute that I hope will keep you away because I don’t need your work,” Mr. Taxali wrote, followed by his own drawing of a hand gesture popular with impatient motorists.

….In the first quarter of this year alone, Google reported profits of $1.42 billion, an increase of 8 percent over the same period last year.

And then there’s this piece in the Christian Science Monitor, which, now that it is strictly an online entity, is Exhibit A in the case for radically reforming, more than saving from death, the traditional journalism business model:

As The New York Times noted, the project does have a precedent. Last year, Google asked Jeff Koons and Bob Dylan, among other high-profile artists, to submit work for iGoogle, a personalized homepage template.

But the problem here is that comparing Jeff Koons and Bob Dylan to your average Joe illustrator (or, indeed, to your average journalist) is troubling: the aforementioned artists don’t need the money. What they should be doing, though, is refusing to work for free so as to set the proper example for the 99 percent of people who aren’t, in fact, Jeff Koons or Bob Dylan — to place the powerbroker in the situation, the corporate entity, into a place in which it takes full and unquestioned responsibility for compensating workers for performing and providing a service. The Monitor story goes on:

“While we don’t typically offer monetary compensation for these projects,” the company said in a statement, “through the positive feedback that we have heard thus far we believe these projects provide a unique and exciting opportunity for artists to display their work in front of millions of people.”

The offer has received a swift rebuke from the artists, who condemned Google for not respecting the value of intellectual property.

Now, let’s be clear: Google is one of the greatest companies ever. I couldn’t write this post without Google. But at some point — as McLennan seems to imply with the question he uses to end his post — doesn’t someone have to say enough is enough? The problem of free isn’t going to go away if everyone keeps working for free.