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“Sorry! We can’t pay. But…”

Thoughts and conversations on licensing creative work for free

Post your work online for long enough (a day, for example) and you are bound to get an email requesting to use your images for free.  This situation is a mixed bag in the sense that it’s always nice to know folks like your work but frustrating to know that they don’t love it enough to consider payment.  No budget.  Sorry!  This type of email is a phenomenon that generally happens more often in the creative fields.  I personally know writers, developers, designers, and artists that frequently get these kinds of requests.

So what is it about the creative fields that make this type of email significantly more common?

The question is simply this:  Why is it so universally acceptable (ie, not considered offensive) for people to ask artists for free goods and services?  

The other day I breeched the subject on Twitter, and to my surprise the topic took off with dozens of people relaying their thoughts and experiences.


The question is: why does this seemingly happen more to creatives than other professions?*  My first thought is that clients simply don’t know any better.  Unless you work in marketing or advertising, creative jobs tend to be considered more of hobbies than actual lucrative paying jobs.  Additionally, as more and more people are taking up design and photography simply as a hobby, the gap between those claiming to be professionals and those who actually are professionals has become blurry from the clients point of view.  But to us working in creative fields, we know that the knowledge and ability gap has only widened between professionals and non professionals.

I think the most tangible point would be that there are more and more people willing to give away work simply for credit and links.  I know lots of photographers flipantly giving usage rights away for free.  The clients don’t realize that credit, link backs, and publicity won’t feed my family. Clients probably assume I work in a tax office as my full time job.  My business cards say ‘Working Photographer’ for a reason!  Additionally, non-creatives don’t understand the licensing market – that my license agreements often require credit and links, but more importantly, money.

I’ll add this.  Do you really want to be promoted by a company that doesn’t have a budget to even buy your image?  There is no marketing fire power behind that kind of deal.  Nine times out of ten, you are wasting your time on empty and budget-less promises with folks that will give you a link but because they of their lack of ‘budget’ no one is paying attention to them in the first place.

I also think it’s possible that we as creatives are a bit more sensitive to this type of thing that other professions – maybe rightfully so.  Our ability, skill, and creativity are directly proportional to our potential for making a living in our field.  However, if you want to enter an industry where there is universal understanding of how your job benefits the client and thus deserves a proportional pay check, find another industry – or be prepared to explain your worth.  We get upset when our work doesn’t speak for itself, but it’s possible that, to the vast majority of clientele, we have to explain it’s worth… in words.  And if the hobbist doesn’t value his work enough to ask for money, why should we?!  Maybe we need thicker skin.

Many clients don’t realize the sunk costs that goes into actually producing a product.  The costs I speak of are not only in gear.  Things like vision, decades of experience, education, travel cost, rental cost, and social investment all play into a creatives ability to work professionally. Most of the times clients can’t see that.  There is no way they could know.

Finally.  Very few mechanics, lawyers, or CPAs are doing work for free… or at least so few that the ‘free’ factor is an extreme outlier.**



My response to free image requests is always a kind, but firm ‘No.’  I’d love to spend time educating them on why I can’t give my work away for free, and it’s something I should consider doing on some level (and will eventually do).  However less than 10% of requests like this turn into the person changing their mind.  I generally never hear from the person ever again (and consequently spend time checking their media to make sure they didn’t steal it in the despite my response)  Those who do respond are offended if I try to explain myself, and the last thing I need to do is spend time NOT getting paid and answering more emails.  We all need less email in our life.

I don’t want to be a jerk either.  Keeping a reputation as a kind and reasonable person is extremely important for creatives and those of us who are self-employeed.  Being a jerk is a good way to ruin that and makes a person more likely to complain about you on social media.  That’s really important to remember.

Beyond all that, there is a good chance that they sent that exact same email to hundreds of other people looking for a similar image.  Requests like this are rarely isolated to just you.  Again, I don’t want to waste time on that type of thing that doesn’t feed my family.  I want to maximize the time I’m doing work that pays and this, in my opinion, is one aspect of my job that I feel isn’t worth spending a ton of time on.



Let’s talk.  After asking this question on twitter, I had writers, developers, designers and photographers all respond.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience.

  • Does this happen to you often?
  • Why do you think it happens?  More often than other industries?
  • What is your response?
  • Is educating low-potential clients worth your time?  Is it even possible?



* I have a theory that the ‘free work’ request gets thrown around in other industries more than we know.  Maybe it’s the bleeding heart (and less wealthy) creatives that throw their hands in the air about it.

**Go talk to a pediatrician about what is like to always be working even when you’re off the clock.  Those guys get have it way worse than us creatives.  

  • brianhirschy

    I’m going to comment first.

    First, I want to make sure we all realize that creatives aren’t the only ones that this happens to, however, the difference is that the requester is usually more apologetic to other industries. Maybe no one is worried about offending and then getting beat up by a creative.

    Second, everyone has a budget. Everyone. Even ‘free’ events have budgets. The statement ‘No Budget’ is absolutely a value judgement. If you are a photographer giving away free stuff to people with no budget, you are quite literally part of the problem… Please stop.

    Third, large ‘real life’ networks of friends that don’t necessarily understand what you do can lead to this phenomenon as well.

    I’m interested to know what you guys have to add!


  • http://twitter.com/jscottramsey Scott Ramsey

    Perhaps the “no” response could be accompanied with a link that offers a thoughtful general response to the request and provides the requestor with some context that will help them better understand what they are really asking.

    • brianhirschy

      This is good and something I’ve thought about doing.

      Maybe I should have spent time on THAT vs. writing a quick blog post about it.

      I’m really interested in everyones experiences in this field and I’m glad an artist who isn’t a photographer (you) stopped by to comment.

      Hope all is well,

  • Sabrina Henry

    Hey Brian, when you posed the original question on Twitter, I actually answered with all seriousness that I was willing to give you something I perceived as valuable. The interesting thing was that you did not see the value in it (or you thought I was joking and didn’t take me seriously–probably that was what it was) but your response is reflective of what we perceive is valuable. What is valuable is in part determined by supply and demand. Create something of value and I truly believe people will pay for it. We also have to make the value proposition and many photographers in general over-estimate what they bring to the table. Too much imitation out there makes it really easy for people to get something for free. Let’s go back to the real meaning of what it means to be a creative (not steal like an artist and all that crap) and make something worthy of being a called a creative.

    *I have lots more to say on this but I’ll limit my response to the thoughts above with the caveat that I know it is not as simple as I’ve stated.

    • brianhirschy

      Hey Sabrina – not sure exactly which part you are referring to in the first part of the comment. Sorry about that! Shoot me a message on twitter and lets talk!

      Per the supply and demand comment, I whole-heartedly agree. That being said, I highly suspect that creating demanding won’t stop folks from asking for free images from photographers. I think that’s here to stay. You know this and I’m quite confident that this is what you would have said in your caveat.

      Back when I was working web development and design full time, explaining why I couldn’t give free work was very beneficial and resulting in a much higher retention rate (over 50%).

      I’d be interested to discuss more about the imitation market and how that satiates demand by creating a larger supply.

      Really great thoughts, per usual!

  • Erin Wilson

    I think some of this comes down to who is doing the asking. Folks involved in non-profits, community events, etc. are always asking for free stuff. Perhaps they think that because they are excited about the initiative and are willing to give their time and talents, that everyone else will feel the same way. Perhaps they also tend to be folks with “jobs”, as opposed to self-employed, who simply have no idea of the value of the product or service they’re requesting.

    I seem to find the asks happen less with people who own their own business, or are directly responsible for creating generating their income. They already have an innate sense of the value/cost, even if it’s in a different line of work.

    • brianhirschy


      You are right. It does depend on the sector. What I have noticed lately is that there is a new generation of folks very much willing to pay the value of a creative. I can think of a few great examples.

      Unfortunately, the culture of ‘freebies’ does run rampant in that community – but I see it getting better.

      I’ve licensed a ton of free work to a couple of NGO’s because I really believed in what they were doing and I saw the benefit. That’s one thing. The other thing is folks who obviously have a budget for something but are ‘google image treasure hunting’ for work and then canvasing what they see w/ free requests.

      The second scenario is really folks asking for free commercial licenses – like in the screen shot I included at the header of the post.

      I’m more curious from a social POV why it’s seemingly acceptable to ask creatives this question!

      Thanks for stopping by, hope all is well,

      • Erin Wilson

        Hey Brian- I didn’t have the NGO sector in mind when I wrote that comment. I come from the museum field, so that what I was thinking about.

        But thinking further… I doubt that creatives are asked more. Local community groups constantly ask electricians for favours when staging events, for an example. Folks try to barter with my farmer friends to get their produce or plants for free or nearly free.

        So I doubt the asks are going more to creatives… but my guess is that creatives make better use of social media, and so the stories spread more.

        • brianhirschy

          I think you might be right – only difference I see is that when the requests came while I was in web dev that they seemed much more apologetic vs. the last 8 years as a photog.

          Could very much be coincidence.

          Thanks for your thoughts – always a valued addition.