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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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]