Working For Free: An Argument

Tim Krieder, author of the excellent We Learn Nothing, wrote in the NYTimes about the mistake of working for free, in an article called Slaves of the Internet Unite. I don’t agree with him and here’s my response:

  1. There are kinds of compensation other than cash. Exposure and experience are valuable forms of compensation. Sometimes these rewards are more valuable than cash. If you were a guitarist and could play a gig with U2, without pay, would you do it? Or, as an author, appear on a prime time news show (guests on TV shows, podcasts and magazine interviews are never paid)? I’m sure you would. No amount of money could equal the exposure you’d gain. How much exposure is worth working for free is up to you to decide, but any wise person recognizes opportunities worth the trade. There are many other examples of fields where working for free is expected until your reputation earns you pay, including athletes, musicians and other artists.
  2. Any offer should be considered for its total value. If what’s offered is beneath your standard, then of course don’t do it. But like Krieder, I make my living as a writer (and a speaker) yet I get requests to work for free. I reject many of them but some I take. I base my decision on the total value of the offer (exposure? experience?)  and I recommend everyone do the same. To reject all non-cash offers limits your opportunities.
  3. There are many paid jobs that are unfair. Being paid does not guarantee fairness. You can be paid far too little, or even be paid fairly but asked to give up most of your rights to the work you made. Negotiations for writing, music and film contracts are largely about control over different kinds of rights, and not just revenue.
  4. If I could work with someone I admired, on a fun and challenging project, I’d certainly consider doing it for free. Or if it was for a good cause, or the idea I’d get to work on was interesting to me and the opportunity was the only way I’d likely ever do the project.
  5. Some people can’t afford to work for free. I understand that many people can’t afford not to be paid for their time. They have every reason to refuse work they can’t afford to do. But this doesn’t mean all unpaid work is unethical. Some of it certainly is, especially if it’s systemic abuse of free labor (unpaid extended internships are a tricky example), but that doesn’t mean a job without financial compensation can’t be a win for both parties.

As a clear example all of the posts on this blog are free. Most videos of my lectures are free to watch. My Twitter and Facebook accounts let fans read things I write for free. Every guest you hear or see on radio and TV shows are never paid anything and when I’ve appeared on these shows I was working for free. These are all creative works I am not paid for, but I believe the total tradeoffs of these actions are worthwhile, even if I’m not paid.

Would you ever work for free? Leave a comment.

[Updated 2-27-15. This post is a revised version of this post]

Related: Alexis Grant, a fellow writer, takes a similar position.

21 Responses to “Working For Free: An Argument”

  1. Genevieve Howard

    Great points! Yes, I do things for free often through volunteer work or writing and speaking.

    I’m grateful you have a generous attitude toward giving away part of your talent for free, on your blog and elsewhere. I have your books, yet I’ve also benefited from what you have on this blog. I appreciate being able to send a link to a specific article to friends. It’s helpful information because you’re transparent about your process–great for beginning writers and speakers like me!

  2. Bibliotropic

    Whether I would work for free largely depends on the situation. I ended up working for free at once point when my employer flat-out refused to pay me, and local labour laws could do nothing to help me out. But I take on extra duties at my current job all the time for no additional pay, even when it means extra work and sometimes even me taking work home in order to keep up with things or to speed things along a little.

    And if one is defining ‘free’ as solely ‘no money changes hands,’ then I work for free all the time, reading and writing reviews of books to help boost publicity and awareness. I’ve done volunteer work all over the place. I’ve taught people skills and not charged them a cent. We do it all the time, and for different reasons. It all depends on what both sides get out of the deal. Sometimes exposure means more than cash in the bank. Not always. But sometimes.

    1. Scott

      I agree it’s situation dependent. There are many variables involved and to see money as the only consideration is a mistake. I’m not saying working for free is awesome or that people should be happy about it, but if you’re a freelancer, which many creatives are, you’ll get freelance style offers for work, many of which won’t be worth you time.

  3. liz

    yeah you’re right, money is only one tiny bit of it. unless you’re bouncing checks, the excitement of being allowed some amazing opportunity is ten times more fulfilling.
    so you wanna write something for my characters scott?

  4. Phil Simon

    I am careful about who gets my free content. HuffPo pays no one but I write for it anyway. Why? It’s great for my brand and I get to talk to real-world rock stars and the occasional Breaking Bad actor. Still, it’s generally a mistake to consistently value yourself at zero. Breaking into paid speaking was really tough and I could speak weekly if I charged nothing. But I don’t.

    I’d say that general rules are silly. Evaluate each opportunity as it comes.

    1. Scott

      “General rules are silly” – Love that.

      Ha ha ha! I got good advice from Simon FOR FREE. Hee hee hee.

  5. J Wynia

    I found that sending a full-priced invoice and discounting it (even if 100%) improved the relationships when I *do* work for free. Whether it’s because it’s friends/family/charity, I sometimes do give away work, but invoicing and discounting for it makes sure everyone knows the actual market value of the work.

  6. Bob The Programmer

    I have musician relatives. They will work for free or next to nothing (payment doesn’t cover gas money for the band) because they love to play.

    But, for programmers, how many requests to work for free or very cheap are really like performing with U2, and how many are the moral equivalent of driving 100 miles to perform with people you don’t like in a nasty unappreciative venue?

    1. Scott

      I’m sure there are many lousy offers. My point is there may be some good ones. A blanket policy is foolish. Thinking is required.

  7. Scott

    There’s also the notion of free samples. Many businesses use the tactic of giving away a sample to encourage people to want more.

    A fundamentalist view would be this was giving a service away for free. But a practical view is aware that human behavior is both attracted to free things, and also compelled to want more of something they like, even if they have to pay for it.

  8. Dan Sutton

    Ultimately, nobody ever does anything for free: every act performed by every person ever is a transaction, and is 100% self-motivated. Whether the reward is money, adulation, a sense of well-being, a feeling of satisfaction, or whatever – it doesn’t matter: the protagonists has received something in return for the action. I think it’s important to realize this: the concept of “work for free” doesn’t actually exist – it’s just that sometimes, the remuneration takes a less tangible form than currency.

  9. Sonal Panse

    *If you were a guitarist and could play a gig with U2, without pay, would you do it? I’m sure you would. No amount of money could equal the exposure you’d gain.*

    On the other hand, I would write a blog about the unfairness of a super-rich band like U2 expecting me to play without pay – Dear Bono, I would say, if you want to end world poverty, this isn’t the way – and then I would lap up the exposure that came with that.

    Just saying.

    1. Scott

      Maybe that’s what you’d do, and that’d be your choice. But if the guitarist next to you chose differently, that’d be their choice too.

      1. Sonal Panse

        Of course. No question. If someone wants to be known for doing free gigs for well-heeled bands, it is totally and completely their call.

        I quite understand that there are different gauges for measuring self-respect.

        It wouldn’t work for me. If it does for someone else, good for them.

  10. Snork A. Saurus

    5. Working for something you believe in, rather than just your own financial gain. Not everything is about increasing your bottom line, or providing yourself with further opportunities to increase your bottom line. Treating work like intellectual property sucks, and contributes to shittier work.

    My “trained discipline” would probably be best described as network admin or cubicle jockey… though I don’t do much paid work anymore. I still do free work for a kids drop in center in a nearby town as well as a few individuals. Doing work for free is a liberating experience which grants you the power to do as much or as little as you want and the freedom to be honest with your “employer” in ways you may not be able to if you were being paid.

    I hope to shift my work-type from a “career” or “occupational” type to something that consists of significantly more work for myself. Rather than be trained in something relatively specific that I would do for a generally narrow list of “employers”, I wish to focus on skills that are much more directly linked to my own survival such as growing and hunting food, managing my water supply, and building shelter to live in. Plenty of people have laughed at me so far, but I am 18 months in now… and feeling much happier than I ever did when I was filling my bank account at a steady pace. They don’t know what they are missing.

  11. Stewart Murrie

    Another consideration: working for free cheapens the market for everyone. Some organizations take advantage of that. For example, I used to volunteer, as a musician, at a well known symphony. If I’m willing to do it for free, what motivation does the symphony have to pay for professional musicians? What impact does that have on those who want to make a living as a musician?

    Some organizations need volunteers. Others use them as a source of cheap labour. Now, I try to figure out which is which before I sign up.

    1. Scott Berkun

      >Some organizations need volunteers. Others use them as a
      > source of cheap labour. Now, I try to figure out which is
      > which before I sign up.

      I agree and my opinion fundamentally is that any artist has to get better at sorting out the where on the spectrum of free work a particular opportunity is. Some are worthwhile. Some are not. But the fact that it’s free isn’t enough to tell you which is which.


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