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Who’s Got the Right to Say What a Creative Practitioner Charges?

Got the following note from Twin Cities, MN commercial freelancer Megan Tsai (www.RedWagonWriting.com), who thought it might make a good blog post. At first, I didn’t think so, as it wasn’t about commercial writing, but the idea grew on me, and I starting seeing the potential for a good discussion. She wrote:

I sometimes take on assignments for a low-paying national magazine with high production value because I enjoy the work and the clips look great in my portfolio. Typically I take the photos myself or allow the publisher to select stock photos, but because I know the value of these clips and have no use for national photo credits myself, I thought I’d offer the opportunity to a local freelance photographer. As you discuss in your book, many freelancers get their start by doing non-paying work.

I posted a quick ad on Craigslist, explaining this would not be a paid assignment, but would result in some high-quality clips for a freelancer just getting started. I asked that anyone interested shoot me an email with a link to their portfolio. Within minutes, my post had been flagged and removed, and several angry responses posted (the site is self-policing, so it was the freelancers who had it removed, not Craigslist itself). At the same time, I received three emails from interested photographers and dozens of hits on my Web site. So the question becomes, is it fair to deprive fellow freelancers of the opportunity to complete non-paying work, or should this decision be left to the individual?

My take? Megan, you’re right. They’re wrong. I’m a libertarian at heart, believing that people should be free to take or not take work, and no one should dictate the conditions under which that happens. You offered a “free market transaction”: people were free to respond or not, and for others to attack you and move to remove your post note, was wrong.

Those applauding the freelancers’ decision to silence you think they’re “standing up for the rights of creative practitioners to be paid what they’re worth” as if you were forcing them to work for nothing. Instead, as you pointed out, what they were doing was indeed depriving freelancers who wanted to exercise their right to do non-paying work (to build their book and reputation) to do so. And in this case, even more so, because it wasn’t as if the publication was going to pay a photographer “market” rates for the gig.

That decision should be no one’s to make but a given freelancer. Yes, I understand the philosophy that says, “If you encourage the idea of working for free, you cheapen the value of what any practitioner in that field does.” Arguably true, but still not your decision to make for someone else. And not compelling enough in my books to make that decision “for the good of the industry” under the guise of protecting rights. Obviously, those people who responded positively to your ad didn’t feel they needed anyone else’s protection.

As I see it, is there any substantive difference between what they did and, say, removing an ad for a TV you had offered for $50 that they thought should have been worth $200? For those who’d say, “That’s different,” I’d ask “How so?” Whether a TV or someone’s time, you’re still deciding for someone else what the value of that thing is, and that’s not your decision to make. And, yes, the same would go for commercial freelancers willing to work for free or for far less than their competitors. I don’t like to see it, but it’s their right to decide, not mine. And until this economy improves, we’re likely to see more and more of this.

Granted, for most established commercial writing practitioners, we’re not likely to find too many newbies beating us out on sophisticated commercial writing projects (e.g., brochures, ad copy, direct mail, case studies, etc.) by working for free or for $25 an hour (they’re more likely to operate on online writing job sites and in the online article writing realm), but I’m still interested in hearing people’s take on this.

Your thoughts on this subject?

Have you had any similar experience of being on either side of a situation like this?

Where do you draw the line between individual’s rights and the “greater good of the industry”?