Should writers, musicians, and artists give away digital copies of their work for free?

will write for foodIn the last few weeks I’ve received a surge of requests from people wanting to republish blog posts we’ve published here. Most people have offered a link back to our website or the publicity that would come from being seen by their readers. But it’s rare for someone to offer to pay for our work.

Earlier this week Michael Hyatt wrote in a blog post:

When you put a price on something, you create value. Art that is offered freely without charge is often disregarded. In other words, if you, as the artist, don’t think it is worth anything, why should I? This is why I don’t think giving your work away for free is good for you or for recipient. If you believe in your work, charge for it.

Once upon a time

Once upon a time, the economy was simple. Everyone paid for newspapers, magazines, and books. The columnists, authors, and photographers that created the content got paid for their work. But those days are gone.

Digital media and the Internet have thrown the economy for creative work into chaos.

Free reign

Now anyone can publish their creative work for free – on a blog, in an ebook, on Flickr, on YouTube. Electronic copies of articles, books, images, and video can be duplicated for free.

There are some amazing benefits to these developments. More people are able to share their creative work than ever before. Ideas and art spread around the world to millions of people overnight. It’s opened the door to new, innovative business models that were never possible before.

But, the downside is a lot of writers and artists are getting next to nothing for their work. Plummeting production and publishing costs have lowered the barrier to entry and resulted in an explosion in the supply of content that far exceeds demand. Many aspiring creatives give away their work for free to magazines, blogs, or websites in the hopes the publicity will help their careers. There’s even more pressure in the non-profit and Christian sectors where artists and writers are often expected to donate their time and art for the cause or for God.

5 Principles in Tension

Whether to charge for copies of your creative work and if so how much is a tough call because there are a number of principles that apply but pull in different directions. Your perspective on this issue probably has to do with how you prioritize these principles.

1) Generosity The generosity principle says, “It doesn’t cost me anything for others to copy my work, so why not give away copies for free?”

2) Value of art The value of art principle says, “My creations have value. I don’t want to cheapen my creations by giving them away for free. I also want people to value other people’s art. Digital copies may not cost me anything directly, but indirectly they devalue all art and I don’t want that.”

3) Mission The mission principle says, “I create for a purpose. I want to change the world. The more people who read/hear/see my work, the more perspectives and lives I can change. The mission is more important than the money.”

4) Support The support principle says, “I like the person or organization who wants to use my art, so I’m going to donate it to help them. But, I wouldn’t necessarily give it away to someone I don’t know or to an organization I don’t believe in.”

5) Stewardship The stewardship principle says, “I’ve been given a talent and I want to make the most of it. Getting paid for my creative work allows me to use and develop my talent more. In some cases, though, opportunities, relationships, and publicity may be worth more than cash. So, I want to evaluate each situation independently and determine which option will enable me to make the most of my talent.”

All of these principles are good. So, I don’t think there’s one right answer to this question. It depends on what you’re goals and priorities are.

Here at Christian Web Trends, I’d say the stewardship principle usually gets top billing but there are certain times when we give away content or guest blog to support others or because we believe the mission is most important. With my personal blog, Live Intentionally, the mission principle is dominant.

So, where do you stand on this issue with your art?

  1. Have you run into people who expect you to give away copies of your writing, music, images or other creative work for free? Do you find that frustrating?
  2. How do you deal with it? Do you give it away for free? Charge a fee?
  3. What principles weigh heaviest in your decisions?

Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.Com, elder of CypressMeadows.org, husband, father of 3, blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulSteinbrueck and add him to your circles at Google+ as +Paul Steinbrueck.

16 Responses to “Should writers, musicians, and artists give away digital copies of their work for free?”

  1. As a composer / song writer and member of the worship team at my church, I've run into this a lot. I've also run into this as a blogger. Everyone wants something for free (me included ;) ).

    My personal philosophy is that the situation and the goal determine whether I'd give my art away or charge for it.

    1. Do I plan to put in the effort and resources to try to sell the work? It's nice for others to able to share in the art I've produced. So, if I'm not going to try to sell it, then I might as well give it away. Though, I hadn't considered whether that devalued the work of others. So, I may have to rethink that one.

    2. Am I getting something else I want more than money in return? Would giving the song away get more publicity, links, etc.? If my real goal is to get my name out, then I may give something away if it helps me meet that goal. If, I want links, I may give away articles.

    3. Do I honestly think that what the people are asking for is worth paying for? This isn't saying that there isn't value to the art, but honestly assessing whether the art is so good that people would pay for it even with other free options out there. If I don't think I could sell it even if I wanted to, then I may give it away. Of course that probably just adds to the problem.

    4. Will it require additional time and effort? You talk mostly about created art in your article, but this also applies to performed art, like singing at an event. I'm much less likely to offer my skills for free when it takes time (and possibly money) for preparation and performance, than just sending an already created recording or article. The one exception I make is the worship team at church. That is one of the key ways I minister to others through the church.

    One last thing I'd mention is that who is determining whether the art is free or not makes a big difference, the artist or the recipient. I was talking with a friend of mine who sings in her church. She's very good and is frequently asked to sing at people's weddings, funerals, and other events. She was a bit irritated that people tended to think that just because she sang in church for free that she should be willing to sing at their event for free. That's something I think all Christians (and people in general) should be aware of. It's one thing for people to offer their talents and skills. It's quite another for other people to devalue those talents and skills by expecting them to be offered for free.

    I'll get off my soap box now.

  2. I’ve been a published author for over 30 years, worked with a lot of the traditional Christian publishing companies and now do self publishing–just found something new I am experimenting with- http://www.smashwords.com. They convert manuscripts to all ereader formats for free (quite a bit of upfront formatting involved), but they also put a percentage of your book up as a free sample…but to get it all you pay.

    I like that. If it is worthy, folks will pay–just getting started on this and interested to see how it goes.

    • PaulSteinbrueck Apr 15, 2011 at 12:10 pm

      Thanks Yvon. I'll take a look at smashwords.

      In all your years as an author, blogger, and trainer, I imagine you've received some requests to reprint your writing or reuse your presentations. How have you handled those requests?

  3. Freely have you received, freely give, Jesus said.
    However, having said that; Jesus's parables point to the wise use of money.

    Since retiring on a very small pension last year I have attempted to get a couple of the 6 Christian books I have authored – non fiction – published.
    Not knowing what I was doing originally, I had 'Doing Our Fathers Will' accepted by Dorrance Publishing Co. for publication, even receiving a contract to sign. But a stalemate ensued, because they are a self-publishing organisation, small pension, South African Rands to dollars 7 times — doesn't work out.

    Second attempt through World Literary Agency, the book 'Bones, Bones, Whose?' accepted for promotion for publication. Current situation? Received contract to sign, but to sell my work to publishers I need a critique, cost $89 South African Rands R600+ depending on the exchange rate. Not viable. Result – stalemate.

    By the grace of God I was led to OUR CHURCH, and your grace offering of a free site was a godsend [THANK YOU] in terms of passing on what I have learnt from being saved since 1953, and doing very intensive research since obtaining my Diploma in Theology in 1989.
    I dearly wish to upgrade for all the obviuos reasons, but can't because of the above reasons. Result – stalemate.

    I believe what is needed in the Christian community and the Body of Christ is organisations to help people who need a start, not charity, to get them going.
    They would be fully entitled to be asking for Bona fides, but be driven by the Spirit of Christ.
    Who knows what material could be released into the Body of Christ, if only the the people/saints could take the first step?

    Bless you OUR CHURCH for what you are doing for me.
    Blessings
    Doug

    • Hi Paul

      Thank you for your reply and your interest, I really appreciate it.

      The reason I can't approach a Pastor is because the situation requires a professional person.

      They suggested a Professor at the University, as below.

      * Do you know a college professor that could do the critique for you? Please

      see the attached sample for review.

      Thanks!!

      —–Original Message—–

      From: Doug [mailto:dougv1@mweb.co.za]

      Sent: Monday, February 28, 2011 4:25 AM

      To: Andrea@TheLiteraryAgencyGroup.com

      Subject: Re: WB Agency: Congratulations! Contract & Critique Process – [Doug

      Vermeulen]

      This is the reply I got from the Professor at the local KwaZuluNatal University:

      Dear Doug

      Academics deal with academic publications. This does not seem to be an academic publication. Please approach a minister or pastor.

      Kind regards

      Prof JA Smit

      He is a Professor of Theology.

      Where is Jesus Christ in all of this?????????

      May the Lord bless OURCHURCH in all its efforts mightily.

      Thank You once again for all you help.

      Bless you

      Doug

  4. As a pastor I wonder what our bible today would be like if David charged for his psalms, Soloman for his prose and the apostles for their epistles. What would it have been like if the disciples had been selling tickets at the door when the 5000 were fed. If you are in the ministry, minister! ITS CALLED SERVING. And either God provides or go get a job. If you're in the secular world, then by all means use secular methods and resources to further your career. What I see in this 21st century church is not a church that relies on faith as the first church does in the book of Acts, but a church that has figured out a better way to spread the "gospel" if that's what it is. (as if God's old ways won't work in this new age) ……

  5. I think we need to change the concept that "if it is for ministry, it is free." Such has long been practiced in the church for generations. We must remember that God gives people IDEAS. Such are free indeed. But once an idea is translated into reality, would it still be free? The incandescent bulb began as an idea. But can we get the actual bulb for free? Certainly, we have to pay for the produce. A song, a book, or an invention starts as an idea. But when it is produced, we really have to pay whether at cost or with a little margin. I think that what the Bible discourages us against is the high commercialization of any product relative to intellectual properties. In other words, we need to "mederate our greed." Even ministers are to be accorded "double honor" as admonished by Paul. The first honor is respect for his calling. The second honor is monetary support. Shalom!

  6. The overall problem lies in the lack of correct teaching – the church has not been taught that it is more blessed to give, and to give cherrfully. Think of the cookie sale at church for example, to raise funds for say a drum set for the praise & worship team – folk will 'give' for a cookie in return, but they will not give for the sake of meeting the need of the church.

    Rule of thumb – WWJD (what would Jesus do?) For example, would He ever sell Himself to the lost (and found – smile) for the price of a ticket, to have folk hear and watch him perform on stage or street?

  7. Hi Paul
    Thanks for your reply and your interest. I appreciate it.
    What I am referring to is an independent org. yet within the Christian fold, to help at all levels of life, including giving a helping leg up.
    The situation, unfortunately, is that most Churches are not equipped to do that.

    I can give you a detailed explanation at any stage of how I am in my situation, I have ended up outside of the normal Church-going situation. Suffice to say that I fully understand how Luther and other reformists have received the persecution they have. I do not place myself in their league by any stretch of the imagination.
    However, I did not choose my path, the Lord led me by the nose, step by step.
    Mans traditions have overtaken the Church Body, and the result is a splintered Body
    In everything I submit I ask the question, "Come, show me from the Scriptures where I am wrong. So far nobody has. I am not into splitting Churches, I am into unifying the Church, He has commissioned me to do my small part in "Heal My Body".
    So I am seeking ways of doing just that, non-aggressively, books, etc.
    The Lord told me years ago from Isaiah 6 that hearing they will not hear, seeing they will not see.
    That is why I value OURCHURCH so much.

    Thank you for your suggestion on e-books, I will pursue the matter.

    Bless you and yours.
    Doug

    • PaulSteinbrueck Apr 20, 2011 at 9:03 am

      Hey Doug, I appreciate your reply. The problem I see with an independent Christian organization outside of the church is that the people serving in it would like the personal connection with the authors. One of the problems is that far more people want to write books than there are people to read them. I recently read the results of a poll in which 80% of the respondents said they would like to write a book some day. There is a far greater supply of books than there is demand for them. Those seeking to give Christian authors some help can't help all authors. They have to use judgement and discernment to be selective. Who should they choose? How does one make that call? Personally, I would want to support authors who have strong character, walk the walk, are passionate about the topic they're writing about, and are committed to writing. The people who are best able to make that call are the people who actually know the person. If the people who know an author personally don't believe him enough to lend him money or help promote his work, why should an independent group of people who don't know him do that? That's my take.

      Furthermore, it's not just aspiring authors who need help. So do aspiring musicians, aspiring entrepreneurs, aspiring inventors, aspiring missionaries… aspiring anything. Instead of creating hundreds of independent organizations to help with every aspiration, I think each person's family, friends, and church are best suited to help.

      Doug, I don't think there's anything wrong with being outside the "normal Church-going situation." There are plenty of problems with traditional churches and plenty of believers who stepped out from traditional church. But I believe it's still absolutely essential for each of us to be connected in community with other believers – in a house church, small group, men's breakfast. I don't believe you will reach your God-given potential or be fulfilled as a person outside of Christian community. If you're into unifying churches, I challenge you to take your "church of one" and unify it with the best church you can find or at least a handful of other "churches of one." I hope you don't mind the friendly nudge. :)

      • Hi Paul
        Thank you and bless you for your reply, I hear a real concern for my eternal soul. Bless you for that.

        I don't mind a friendly nudge, I want it, in fact I in my twitter site – @qouvadiscodis – I invite the people who are into the Highest Truth into the site. It comes from my book QOU VADIS CODIS MAXIMUS [Whither goest thou Highest Truth]. It was also persuing the Highest Truth in the Bible that also contributed to where I am in my life, right now.

        By the way, I have used what I know to try and upload my picture, but have not succeeded. Can please tell me how, so you can see who you are speaking to. Thanks.

        I hear your comments about being connected. In fact, the whole commission is to 'Heal My Body', and so everything has to serve that end.
        Knowledge gives understanding, so I would like to take up the challenge above, and clarify what the situation is. Do you want me to do that here, or in some other way?

        Bless you and thank you for your responses, I value them tremendously.

        Bless you and yours

        Doug

  8. PaulSteinbrueck Apr 25, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Hi Doug, I'm not sure I understand. My "challenge" was just an informal encouragement to become a part of a community of Christians in some form, one that encourages and supports its members' God-given dreams.

  9. PaulSteinbrueck Apr 27, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Hi Doug, it certainly sounds as though you've made significant efforts to join together with other believers. I would just encourage you not to give up. Perhaps God will lead you to another church. Perhaps God will lead you to start another church. Perhaps there is an online church like LifeChurch.tv where you could connect with other believers.

    • Hi Paul
      Bless you and thank you for all your interest, patience and help, it means a lot to me, and I value it tremendously.
      Thank you for your encouraging comments. The role of a reformer, however well-intentioned, is and can be a lonely, and ones intentions can be seriously misunderstood, however non-aggresive, but insistent on the truth, one can be.
      Mans traditions can be a serious roadblock.
      I will soldier on, the Lord was very clear about "Heal My Body". I will attempt to do my small part, and depend on the Lord for the rest.

      I will certainly explore the LifeChurch.tv site and see what happens.

      Bless you and yours
      Thank you
      Doug