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|| News Item: Posted 2015-07-22

‘The Sky Is Falling!’
Or how the culture of ‘free’ and other woes starts – and stops – with us

By Martin McNeil

For some time now, it has been a fashionable and somewhat predictable refrain of photographers across all sectors: we lament that our industry is in decline, and follow up with musings relating to the heydays and a supposed “golden age” of our profession.

I will readily confess that, on occasion, I have instigated or contribute to such debates; the 24/7 availability of information and communication that was birthed with the advent of the world-wide-web by Tim Berners-Lee and co., through their marriage of hypertext with the TCP and DNS technologies, has given rise to the ability to immediately share our opinions with anyone who cares to view them.

Just a few days ago, a select piece of information was shared with me – news about Reuters plan to offer free content to Web publishers; coming on the heels of Getty’s “Embed” programme which was announced in early 2014. I wasn’t entirely surprised by this news, though it was troubling to learn that yet another major player in editorial media was going down a similar path.

A few months earlier still, a firestorm of debate was ignited following photographer Pat Pope’s open letter to the grunge band Garbage ( which, although initially confined to his own web presence, was soon picked up by larger media outlets, including The Guardian

Creatives of all kinds are almost routinely asked to provide their services without compensation, and there is no doubt that extensive chronological evidence and anecdotes exist to demonstrate that such requests have been in existence for perhaps as long as the concomitant professions.

However, the global reach that has allowed us to receive requests for ‘free’ work, whether from Tokyo, Tel Aviv, Temecula or any territory you care to name, also offers up a fresh perspective on this issue.

We are not alone, and we can all do something about it – individually and collectively.

In the immediate wake of the Pat Pope / Garbage debacle, I was introduced to the Facebook community titled “Stop Working for Free” ( which, at that point, sported a ‘membership’ of about ten thousand people; at the time of typing, that number stands is a hair over sixteen and a half thousand. It’s an open group which invites creatives of all types to discuss issues and concerns relating to the culture of ‘free’ – the twin sibling of creativity, the one that was given an anabolic boost by the Internet age.

Through reading the postings made to this group, and contributing wherever I felt I had something to offer by way of advice or insight, I have come to realize that the issues faced by creatives are near identical no matter the skill-set: we all want to do good work, and we all want to be fairly compensated for doing such work.

It also served to highlight another common theme: many freelance creatives are often drowning in a sea of bad advice – sometimes anecdotal, sometimes patently false information which appears to be disseminated by those with specific agendas, and every other kind of opinion in between.

I joined Sports Shooter back in 2007 because I was a freelancer who was seriously lacking in the advice and guidance part of my career; I looked to the articles and forum postings as a virtual mentor, and the nuggets I have picked up therein over the years have served me well.

My long-held belief is that the best answer to any challenge is to ask questions of those who have faced similar obstacles previously; taking that ethos one step further, the best defense against perceived threats to our industry – including the wider sphere of creative talent – is to voluntarily share information and experiences with others, so that they might reap the benefits and otherwise avoid pitfalls that are easily side-stepped when armed with the relevant knowledge.

As an example: Back in 2007, I wish I knew how relatively easy and inexpensive it is to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office so as to afford it the best possible protection under law – even though I’m based in the United Kingdom, where such steps aren’t necessary. Because my work was syndicated and circulated globally, a good many legitimate uses were with entities based in the US… and, by extension, so were a great many infringements.

Through hard-learned lessons, I have found myself advising anyone who will listen to me that registering your work with the USCO should, wherever possible, be a routine part of what you do as a creative; I listened intently to a recent webinar by PhotoShelter co-founder Allen Murabayashi, where he was talking with IP attorney Ed Greenberg and photographer Jack Reznicki about this very topic – I wasn’t wholly surprised to learn that – via a live interactive poll of viewers at the time of broadcast – seventy nine percent of respondents had never registered any of their work with the USCO.

This got me to thinking: when we cry foul every time a report surfaces of a creative being asked for free or, worse still, having their work appropriated and used without permission – who is to blame?

We are.

Let me take that bold assertion a step further. If neophyte creators are under-charging, being exploited through their lack of knowledge about the simplest of business practices such as contracts, insurances and other allegedly ‘common sense’ cornerstones of freelancing, who is responsible?

We are.

If we continue to supply the entities that expect us to be grateful for ever-decreasing royalty percentages on the pretense that their platforms represent the best visibility and revenue opportunities for us, who is at fault?

We are.

We can choose to educate, inform, contribute and do our level best to ensure that all creatives are able to get a fair shake and not be reduced to the generic moniker of “content partners” – because we should definitely not be content with the alternatives, because they will affect every one of us.

We should lead by example and should never exploit other creatives – because their efforts, regardless of their choice of expression, are every bit as worthy of fair compensation as our own. So: film directors shouldn’t promise musicians that using their music on their feature / short will catapult them to stardom, musicians shouldn’t low-ball photographers for album art or promo shots, photographers musn’t have “zero budget” for models and make-up artists, models need to pay web designers for portfolio pages, web designers should expect to pay illustrators for their business logos – etc. etc. ad nauseam

We can learn and use the word “No” in our business dealings, and encourage others to do the same. I know we all get a kick from creating and that most of us just love to do it… but it has to be done on our terms or, at least, terms that are negotiated and to the benefit of all involved.

Lastly, we need to – once and for all - kick the currency of “exposure” to the curb and leave it to die there as a victim of the elements. Such promises largely have a one-way benefit, and it’s almost never in the direction of the person who created the work that was exposed to the masses; much like the assertion that “information wants to be free”, one has to wonder why the information is usually surrounded by advertising or other solicitations for monies, and often requires you to turn over personal information in order to access it. So goes the promise of exposure.

Martin McNeal is a freelance photographer based in London. You can see samples of his work on his Sports Shooter member page:

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