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Tom Richmond: Don’t give it away

Mad Magazine cartoonist Tom Richmond has posted an excellent on the dangers of giving away one’s artwork without compensation. The interview is done in a response to a video interview with Sci-Fi writer Harlan Ellison.

The point he is making is twofold. First, that professionals should not give away their work. Almost anybody who markets their creative skills looking for work will get contacted by people wanting to use their talents for nothing or for peanuts. This is exponentially true now that the Internet is the primary source of both marketing for work and looking for those to do work. It is so easy and cheap to fire off an e-mail to anybody asking for whatever they need. In many cases such inquiries are asking an artist or other creative professional to produce some work for nothing or for a fraction of a living rate, but not always. Sometimes they are asking to use something they have already produced, like in Harlan’s story here. In those cases it would be so easy to just say, “Yeah, go ahead and use it”. After all, it’s already done and will take you no more time, right? So therefore it has no value?? That is the perception of many would-be users and sadly of some creators.

It is not true that stock images (ones already created) have no value. They have great value. Just ask any stock house that buys the copyrights to previously created artwork from artists and then turns around and sells them to end users. Just ask those salivating over the “Orphan Works Act”, which if passed will open up a world of stock art to be used in lieu of paying a professional for the rights to use an image. Remember that illustrators are not really selling their time in creating a piece of art, they are selling the rights to use that art. That value is still there for the copyright holder. It is unfair to the illustrator, and damaging to his/her profession, to just give that value away. It’s damaging because every time an image is just given away is one less job for an illustrator trying to earn a living in the real world.

Go read the whole thing.

Community Comments

#1 Howard Tayler
September/19/2008
@ 7:43 am

I know this is going to sound odd coming from a webcartoonist, but I agree completely.

I get a lot of requests along these lines, from “may we reprint one of your comics in the context of a review of the overall strip?” (answer: Yes, no charge, fair-use says you could have gotten away without asking) to “may we use artwork from your site in conjunction with [commercial enterprise]” (answer: Certainly, here are my rates.)

Just because I publish roughly 95% of my work at no charge to readers on the web doesn’t mean I believe my work has no value.

Lots of webtoonists (and others) don’t understand the principle here, and articles like this one get passed around and linked to all the time as we work to educate each other.

#2 anne hambrock
September/19/2008
@ 9:33 am

Professionasl musicians learned this lesson decades ago and, in fact, many of them belong to the musician’s union as a result.

I cannot even offer a total on the number of times someone has asked me to play their function and “donate my services”. They usually try to entice me with the phrase “you’ll make so many contacts”. The irony is that in all the years of freelancing I have done – the gigs that yield further gigs are always the ones for which I was properly compensated and the “fundraiser, worthy charity” ones yield absolutely nada.

Fortunately, I learned pretty quickly that there is almost always someone on the organizing committee who will cover my “appearance fee” out of their own pocket. Those people realize that I have more to offer in making their event enjoyable and memorable (not to mention the publicity they get out of it when they advertise the event) than they can offer me in “exposure”.

#3 Stephanie McMillan
September/19/2008
@ 9:37 am

Thank you for linking to this! I get these requests all the time (this week it’s for two free pages of a comic book that will be used to obtain funding for the rest, and another guy who wants an illustration of his joke that he “might be able to get into a magazine this month.” NO. NO. NO.)

I drew a strip about it not long ago:
http://minimumsecurity.net/blog/2008/04/11/ms-73/

#4 PhilWohlrab
September/19/2008
@ 10:03 am

I hate every twerp out their offering spec work. People never learn. There was once a posting on craigs list for someone looking for an illustrator for their book about their battle overcoming cancer. Of course this person wanted an illustrator for free. Ok, sure we all feel sorry for people with serious illness.. I’m sure the doctor felt bad to. That doesn’t mean he didn’t get paid.

There is a difference between commissioned work and getting paid for your own creations, however. At least in the eyes of syndicates, I’m sure. The idea of being paid to create your own stuff is so luring to people they CAN string you along, and keep you working your butt off for peanuts. The whole idea of the daily deadline and the small paycheck has pretty much turned me off from the the idea of ever attempting a newspaper comic strip again.

#5 David Cohen
September/19/2008
@ 11:08 am

Being both a working cartoonist AND a working musician, it sometimes seems that I can’t turn around without someone asking me to do something free for them.
And I’ve heard all of the lures—-“Think of the contacts you’ll make”, “free drinks and dinner”, “it is SUCH a good cause!”, ” I heard that your band LOVES to play benefits”…..
I can’t say that I haven’t done things for free, but I can say that I DO try to ration them out to things that I personally believe in or have a stake in. One of the joys in life can be lending one’s talents to a good cause in the hopes that they will be beneficial.
One of the bummers in life is trying to convince people that you don’t just do these things because they are “fun”.
It’s a fine line to walk on, and everybody has to decide for themselves how to do it without falling off.

#6 Dave Stephens
September/19/2008
@ 6:33 pm

They say, “It’ll be great exposure”.

To which I answer, “People die from exposure.”

And one more thing – folks who want you for free or almost free also tend to be the most demanding – after all, their first demand worked like a charm!

Just say NO! Good riddance to bad rubbish…

#7 KRANKY (JOE RANK)
September/19/2008
@ 9:59 pm

So good to know other working cartoonists AND musicians. ( Pro harmonica player here ).
I have run into the same requests. For requests to use my work, I take into account the individual circumstance. I explain that I am a professional that expects to get paid for my intellectual property, but will waive fees in special situations, and for limited purposes.
Those that bother to ask are likely not inveterate thieves, but there are probably exceptions.

#8 steve skelton
September/20/2008
@ 10:54 am

As an illustrator, I have referred potential clients to the no spec site several times.

http://www.no-spec.com/

#9 Ted Rall
September/22/2008
@ 6:58 am

Remember the classic movie “Tapeheads”? “On spec?!?” was the blood-curdling cry of creatives being exploited.

There are times when giving your work away for free is fine. When you’re a new cartoonist, you can’t sell it and you need tearsheets and exposure. After you’re established, there are publications on a shoestring budget whose work you support by allowing them free reprints. Donating originals to charities is a worthy act.

The problem occurs when giving away artwork for free becomes a religion, a reflexive act. There are countless examples of cartoonists, especially but not exclusively webcartoonists, giving away work that they could have sold. That’s just dumb.

When someone wants to use your stuff, your first question should be “What’s your budget?” or “How much do you pay?” If they say they can’t afford it (non-profits often say this), ask if they pay anyone else. Does their landlord donate their space? Does Staples give them free office supplies? Does their receptionist work for free? Odds are, everyone gets paid except you, the cartoonist. Well, screw that.

In cases where no one is getting paid but there’s a prospect of improved financial conditions later on–say, a small new alternative magazine or newspaper start-up–you should draft a contract that ensures you’ll get a piece of future profits.

Failing to get as much payment as you can not only cheats you and your family, it cheats us, your cartoonist colleagues, by setting a terrible precedent.

#10 Alan Jones
September/22/2008
@ 12:17 pm

Hmmm…what about purposefully encouraging folks to freely copy/distribute (downloading it, sending it to a friend or using it as free wallpaper, etc) your web comics from your site, as a means to promote it? An example that comes to mind recently is Aaron Johnson’s “What the Duck” ? Is that giving it away in the negative sense as expressed in the above comments, or just a clever promotional scheme? Or??

#11 Garey Mckee
September/22/2008
@ 3:57 pm

Alan, I think that depends on what your goals are with said webcomic. Most webcomic authors make their money in merchandising, NOT advertising revenue from ads that might be on their site (that money is very modest indeed).

I don’t see how a webcomic distributed for free to increase it’s exposure would be a bad thing if merchandising is the key goal. Especially if the work distrubted for free is linked back to the webcomic’s site, with a blub about what’s available. IE, “If you like Joe Shmoe comic, be sure to check out the Joe Shmoe site for books, clothing and other great items. A perfect gift for any fan!”

#12 Tom Richmond
September/23/2008
@ 6:38 am

I don’t think anyone is suggesting you should not donate your time, work and talents to a good cause or for an organization you wish to support. I have done that many times. There is a big difference between someone wanting you to give them your art so they can try to make money from it without paying you in the first place, and supporting a charity or good cause.

Likewise there may be times when giving your work away is a smart move financially. There is the famous story of Dru Blair, where he allowed publications about airplanes to use his fighter jet airbrush paintings as covers in exchange for free ad space advertising limited edition prints of said paintings. He sold a million dollars worth of prints. That is different as he approached them, and it was part of a self conceived marketing campaign. Software companies give away software all the time as a way to get onto consumer’s computers and hopefully sell them more software later.

This is about not agreeing to commercial deals without the commerce with clients who should understand what market rates are.

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