Communion Of Dreams

It’s exploitation.

Nine years ago, as I was in the process of closing down my gallery of fine art, I wrote the following in response to a query from a local restaurant owner who was looking to offer our artists the “exposure” of hanging their art on her walls:

Having free art to hang on your walls in order to entice people is a great idea.  It would be the same thing as getting local musicians to come perform during all your hours of operation for no pay, with the excuse that they’re getting “exposure” and can put out a tip jar or maybe schedule paying gigs – and you won’t even ask for a percentage of the cut!  Such a deal!  Or to get it out of the realm of the arts, what would you call an employer who “allowed” workers to slave away for no compensation other than the chance to sell their services to some other potential employer when they were noticed for how well and hard they worked?  And what do you think that would do for the level of wages in the community?

Folks, this is exploitation, nothing more.  It’s using artists for your own personal gain.

I suppose I should have had the prescience to see the coming storm of internships, but back then I wasn’t as cynical as I am now.

Because the truth of the matter is that this sort of thing has almost become routine. Companies hold “competitions” for new logos and other graphic design needs, with the hook that winning such a competition will give the designer “exposure” and a chance to *maybe* do some other actual paid work for the company later. The Huffington Post was built on a model of not paying for content from most of their writers, but rather providing them an outlet for “exposure.” It’s become such a routine practice for online publications to ask for free content that best-selling author John Scalzi posted a bit of a rant back in December about the requests he gets.

Well, two days ago veteran journalist and multiple-award winner Nate Thayer got a query from the Atlantic Magazine to re-purpose a longer article he had published elsewhere. Thayer was open to the query, right up to the point where the Global Editor said that they wouldn’t pay for the piece, but rather it would be good for Thayer because of the “exposure”. Thayer blogged about it, including his email correspondence back and forth with the editor so that the entire horror show unfolds before your eyes. Thayer’s basic reaction is best summed up by this passage:

I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts.

The whole thing has gotten a fair amount of attention online, and generated a lot of fairly predictable discussion.  Including taking Thayer to task for publishing the emails as well as his audacity at taking umbrage at being asked to provide his work for free.

My reaction to this is best summed up in Scalzi’s two final points in his rant:

9. If this is your cue to complain about how this makes me an asshole, ask me if I care. Go on, ask!

10. But now that you mention it, saying “fuck you, pay me,” to you does not make me (or anyone else from whom you are hoping to extract actual work from without pay) the asshole in this scenario. It makes me the guy responding to the asshole, in a manner befitting the moment.


It’s one thing to be asked to contribute work to some charity. Or to participate in writing for a blog or website which (intentionally) isn’t generating income for the owners. It’s another matter altogether to be asked to give away your work (creative or non) to benefit a for-profit business. That’s called exploitation.

And calling it exploitation doesn’t make you the bad guy.


Jim Downey


8 Comments so far
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I saw a similar rant on the Book of Faces from a musician asked to play for free in a restaurant. His response: I will be holding a party this weekend. Perhaps you would like to cook for it for free, on the chance that my party-goers would be interested in hiring you to cater their later, unspecified party. And since you have set a precedent of working for free, don’t expect to be paid by them either.

Comment by Andrixos

excellent point!

Comment by Steve Tuck

Bingo, drx.

Comment by James Downey

Great post! I agree completely with your sentiments (and John’s). It’s exploitation. Nothing more or less.

Comment by Steve Tuck

I find it remarkable that this even needs to be said. How on Earth could it be anything other than exploitation? All you have to do is just stop for a *moment* and consider all the facts, and it’s clear. Sheesh.

Comment by James Downey

Once upon a time I was an editor for an art magazine that was purchased by a new owner who said he expected the writers and editors to work for free. We laughed and he said he knew people who would do it.

I said, you get what you pay for. He laughed. In the end, the magazine never produced another issue.

Comment by Thomas Evans

Another perfect example of the deep bias that people in our culture have that art isn’t “work”. Gah.

Comment by James Downey

Gah indeed.

Comment by Thomas Evans

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