Copyright for Visual Artists

Your artwork has value. Know your rights.


Why Visual Artists Work for Free

  • Belief that art is worthless and/or that their art is worthless
  • Lack of basic business knowledge
  • Lack of knowledge of their rights
  • Lack of confidence in negotiating business agreements
  • Belief that "it will be free advertising" and help to promote their work
  • Strong conviction that culture should be free.
  • They desire to give their work away to benefit humanity.
  • Lack of financial need for gain - they create artwork purely for enjoyment.

Visual Copyright Article

Why do Visual Artists Work for Free?

or, why visual artists are poor and plumbers are not...

By T. Vernon, April 9, 2009

" I have a dirty secret. I have done my share of free art and design work over the years. I have also at times sold and licensed my artwork for a pittance. Why? Lots of reasons. Maybe it's just cynical middle age creeping up on me, but the more I do this, the less I like it. Maybe I have finally decided that my work, my training, my talent and my time have value and should be treated accordingly."

I'd like you to imagine the following scenario. A business person calls a plumber and asks the plumber to do some work for free because it "will be good advertising and experience". The plumber is young, just out of trade school, and not entirely confident in his abilities yet. He also is new at running a business, so agrees to do the work for free.

Now, take the same story and replace the plumber with a lawyer, an auto mechanic, an accountant, a hairdresser or a chef. It's a pretty silly story, isn't is? It would never happen to these individuals because they would not allow themselves to be taken advantage of in that manner. They all have specialized training and experience and they know that their work has value. None of those them would stay in business very long if they constantly donated their talents, skills, time and work for free.

I am not advocating against helping out good causes or contributing to needy non-profit organizations, but in my thirty years in the visual arts I have enountered so many requests for "free" work it suggests to me that we don't value art or artists very much. Does anyone think that all types of workers and professionals are reguarly asked to work for free? When was the last time you asked your dentist to work for free? How about your dog groomer? How about the chef who prepares your restaurant meals? But visual artists are regularly asked and expected to work for free.

I have a dirty secret. I have done my share of free art and design work over the years. I have also at times sold and licensed my artwork for a pittance. Why? Lots of reasons. Maybe it's just cynical middle age creeping up on me, but the more I do this, the less I like it. Maybe I have finally decided that my work, my training, my talent and my time have value and should be treated accordingly. I have found that many times when I have done art or design work for free, the "client" has treated both me and my artwork as if it were worthless. Never forget the old saying "you get what you pay for". There is an irrational but widely accepted psychology to this - people want something for nothing, but at the same time, they value things that cost a lot of money.

Many visual artists live and die in poverty because they are not inclined to attend to the business aspects of their craft. It is surprising how many visual artists work for free simply because someone asks them to do so, saying: "please donate your artwork/your time/your talent for free, it will give you good exposure". (How many times have I heard that one over the years? Too many to count, sadly.)

" ...even though studies show that the visual arts add millions of dollars to economies, there is a pervasive attitude in the world at large that art is of little value and basically worthless. If you disagree with this, just look at the funding and support that arts education receives in public schools. Many see art as a frivolous and unimportant activity. Is it any wonder that artists are constantly asked to work for free? Is it any wonder that when artists are paid for their work, they are usually happy to get a few dollars thrown their way?"

Even when artists are paid for their work, it is often a nominal pittance. There are many reasons why this happens, one of which is that many artists are creative souls who care more about beauty, color, ideas and creativity than about the almighty dollar. Another reason is that many artists have deep seated inferiority complexes regarding the value of their own work. Another reason is that artists are often not "bottom line oriented", if they were that type of person they would have become bankers, accountants and business people. Another reason is that many artists work at their art part time, relying on day jobs to pay for rent and food. They don't think of their art activities in business terms, for them its just a pleasurable part time activity, or a hobby. Another reason is that even though studies show that the visual arts add millions of dollars to economies, there is a pervasive attitude in the world at large that art is of little value and basically worthless. If you disagree with this, just look at the funding and support that arts education receives in public schools. Many see art as a frivolous and unimportant activity. Is it any wonder that artists are constantly asked to work for free? Is it any wonder that when artists are paid for their work, they are usually happy to get a few dollars thrown their way?

You might ask what any of this has to do with visual copyright. Since the dawn of the graphical web browser in 1994 which gave the ability to copy, paste and download digitized artwork and photos, hundreds of thousands of visual artists find themselves working for free, whether on purpose or inadvertently. Their work is downloaded, used, remixed, collaged, referenced, plagiarized, cherry picked, and sold for profit all without attribution, without permission, and without credit.

I like free culture as much as the next person, really I do, but I hate to see individual artists, photographers and illustrators abused, especially when those artists are often well trained and well educated, having spent years perfecting their craft. The free culture argument is essentially the same approach as those who say to artists: "you're a visual artist so you will work for free, right?".

By learning some basic sensible business practices and by knowing their rights, artists are empowered and gain the ability to advocate for their own best interests. The next time you are asked to work for free or sign away your rights to an image think about that plumber! Consider obtaining a few good books on the business of being a visual artist or take a night course on how to manage your visual arts career to your advantage. Most artists would do well to have a a few simple business documents on hand, including a model release and an image licensing agreement. And before you place your artwork on the internet, think about your rights and perhaps add a copyright symbol to your work. It's no guarantee of protection for your work, but it's better than nothing.

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Disclaimer
These pages are for educational purposes only. This site offers a combination of fact, anecdotal information and editorial opinion of the writer, none of which should be construed as legal advice. If you require legal assistance on any aspect of copyright law, please contact a lawyer.