Giving it Away

September 19th, 2008 | Posted in General

I’d been meaning to write a post about this subject for some time, and after getting this link from the LCS: Illustration News Portal blog that links back to a previous article of mine, I thought I’d finally get around to it.

The LCS post features the following YouTube video, an excerpt of an interview with Sci-Fi writing legend Harlan Ellison, which sums the matter up colorfully but succinctly. As a warning, it’s VERY colorful at times, so if cursing and f-bombs bother you know you’ve been warned:

Harlan is an outspoken guy, and isn’t know for being subtle. He might come off a bit like a curmudgeon to some, but his point is well taken. Professionals should not give away their work, and it’s surprising how many people expect them to do just that. I am not just talking about the “million dollar idea” people who sell insurance by day and are amateur children’s book authors on weekends (something I previously blogged about)… but other professionals engaged in producing actual products that will sell profitably and should know better. Harlan’s story of the Warner Bros. DVD he was asked to participate in (but not if he wanted to be paid for it) is a good example. Of course one can argue that an interview is not some story he has written, and it’s a different animal, but in Harlan’s case his persona and professional reputation is what is of value here. His opinions on a subject have value as his name is well known and having “includes commentary by Harlan Ellison” on the cover of a DVD is a selling point.

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.

In truth that is a little overly dramatic because many of these types of “can I use this image for free?” inquiries are being made by folks who would have no intention of paying an illustrator no matter what kind of response they receive. They would eventually find a cheap or free alternative… even if it meant getting Billy down the street who draws dragons and elves in his notebooks all day to whip something up on a piece of typewriting paper. Those are not, nor were ever, legitimate clients. Still there are many legitimate clients who know very well they should be paying actual money for the work they are asking to use who STILL ask for it for nothing or next to nothing. Those people need to be told thanks but no thanks. Just in the last month I was contacted by a reasonable sized news publication that was doing a feature article on Al Jaffee. They had come across this sketch on my blog, probably from a Google search:

They asked if they could use the image with the story. Now, this wasn’t the local church newsletter, this was a magazine with a real circulation.

“Sure!” I said. “I usually charge $350 to $500 for a spot illustration, but since this is a stock illustration I charge less than my usual rates, so how does $125 sound?”

“Oh… We just wanted to use it for the story.”

“Yes, I understand that. And I charge people to use my artwork in stories in magazines.”

“Okay. Thanks anyway.”

I never heard from them again. Hard to believe that a real magazine, which knows very well that they have to pay to use an image in publication, thought that I would just let them use it for nothing. At least she didn’t insult me by using the dreaded “P” word.

You know… PUBLICITY.

Harlan goes off when he talks about how this person from WB mentions PUBLICITY as if it is some kind of compensation for the use of his interview footage. Lot’s of people like to throw that word around. I had an author approach me this spring about doing all the illustrations in a children’s book. 28 pages, 20 plus of which were mostly illustrated. It wasn’t a completely art driven book (i.e. one sentence in a two page spread of illustration) but it was probably 75% art driven. I was offered a comparatively small amount of money upfront but lots of promises of PUBLICITY and back end royalties. I asked for a standard level upfront fee and was turned down. This was an author who had one book already published and two more in the works based on the same theme. It was a bit of a red flag that the illustrator on his first book was not involved in this new venture. Another example of someone refusing to pay standard rates even though they should know better.

Harlan’s second point is a little less agreeable. He’s incensed by “amateurs” that do give away their work for free or next to nothing for that ever present compensation known as PUBLICITY. He states that they are the ones that make things hard on professionals. Okay, I can see his point but I think something like that is pretty easy to say if you are Harlan Ellison, one of the most sought after and respected writers in the business. I would be willing to bet Harlan did more than a few jobs for little or nothing when he started out as a young writer. He does have a point when he says that it makes it harder on pros not because they lose the work but because clients become accustomed to getting things for nothing or next to it, and begin expecting the same of seasoned pros. That’s the fault of the client, who should know the difference. If they don’t see the difference between hiring Harlan Ellison and hiring some kid that just graduated from college, they are idiots.

There will always be young talents trying to break into the industry, and they will always charge less to compensate for their lack of experience and work/name recognition. It’s part of life. The balance to this is there is also a subset of “clients” who are not willing to pay professional rates, and therefore these two types pair up more often then not. The seasoned pro offers something more, and most good clients understand this. The problems arise when the larger clients who should be using the seasoned pros start trolling the waters for the cheap, inexperienced alternative. That DOES hurt the industry as it lowers what paying clients consider the standard rates for given work. I can understand Harlan’s frustration but I think it is better aimed at higher end clients that are trying to get something for nothing when they know better.


  1. Eric says:

    As much as there is to learn and enjoy from your technical drawing posts…I really do value your real-world business anecdotes…they are a perfect mix: educational, encouraging and corrective.

    Thank you!

  2. meredithd says:

    Let me start with saying I agree with everything you are saying 100%. Now, does this completely rule out charity / pro-bono work? Like for a church or a cause you’re interested in? I know there’s a limit to charity, but how much is reasonable? Is it something one should include in a budget?

    I, too, am constantly barraged with requests for free work, and finding a balance is challenging. Occasionally I will do it but mostly I turn it down, making me feel like a big meanie. Most recently I agreed to do some free work in exchange for advertising, but was turned down. Felt like a slap in the face. Needless to say, I rescinded my offer.

  3. mg1984 says:

    Great post. I found myself chuckling about your D&D reference, I guess everyone know an artist like that.

  4. schwalove says:

    My wife is a tattoo artist and I’m going to school for graphic design, and we both had a laugh at this comic, which kinda goes along with what you and Ellison are saying about publicity:

  5. Tom says:

    Certainly in the case of charities and other causes you wish to support it is perfectly okay to give away your work or to work for free. I have donated many pieces of art and done work for organizations for nothing many times. That is a different animal. My point is not to allow yourself to give away your work or do it for very cheap with the promise of “possible” remuneration down the road.


Atlanta Caricature workshop wraps up today! Check my other 2018 workshop locations:

Workshops Ad

Dracula ad

Doctor Who Ad

Superman Ad

%d bloggers like this: