315 Million Reasons Why Writers Shouldn’t Write For Free

The online newsies of the world all pointed and shouted with excitement, “See?! SEE?!” when AOL bought the Huffington Post new blog for $315 million. Newspapers and journalists all hunched over and typed a little faster when they heard the news, hoping they too could be the next major acquisition by the online giant-emeritus.

But it’s only recently that people began realizing that Huffington Post built its success on the backs of unpaid writers — writers who want to be compensated, even just a little, by the news source they built. (Simon Dumenco has a good wrapup of how Huffington Post is screwing their writers.)

I understand the appeal. The writers were promised the one thing every startup publication offers plenty of (but usually has none): exposure.

“We can’t pay you, but we’ll put you in front of all of our readers,” they promise. “Once we start to get money from ad revenues, then we’ll start paying you for future articles.”

But Huffington Post aside, those 9 million other magazines and newspaper startups never see enough revenue to pay for the celebratory kickoff party, let alone paying the bankruptcy attorney when they fold three months later. Besides, it doesn’t sound like HuffPo ever offered money. Ever.

It’s real simple, writers shouldn’t write for free. In that link, scifi writer Harlan Ellison rants about how writers are constantly getting the short end of the payment stick, thanks to the mistaken idea that what we do is somehow easy.

What we do is not easy. We’ve only done it for so long, we make it look easy. It still takes work to string together 500+ words, make sure they’re spelled correctly, are coherent thoughts, and are assembled into something that’s both easy and enjoyable to consume. (If you think it’s easy, take a whack at 500 words on any topic, and send it to me for an “honest but thorough” critique. I dare you.)

Look, if you want exposure for your writing, and you want to write for free for Huffington Post. Go ahead. But don’t do it in the hopes that they’re going to come up with a little thank you gift for all your hard work. You knew it was free going in, and that was the deal you made with them.

I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic, because I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been screwed by an editor or potential client. I fervently believe that Huffington Post should do the nice thing and show a little love and gratitude to the people who made them worth $315 million, but I don’t think it’s something they have to do. Not because it’s their party, and they made the rules, but because the writers never had the expectation of getting paid, and went into the relationship fully expecting to never receive money.

(Update: One friend who runs a very popular community blog said if he gets a front page placement on Huffington Post, his site get 10,000 – 50,000 extra visits from the story. Otherwise, he runs around 2,000 extra visits. For a site that makes money from selling advertising, writing for free for Huffington Post is worth it, because it helps him serve up more ads, which makes him more money.)

If you want fame and exposure, write your own blog. Work your ass off in that niche, become famous, and work on your personal branding to find new readers. Then leverage that into paid bylines in real print publications, public speaking gigs, and even a book, like say, one on personal branding (affiliate link).

While that strategy is much, much harder than knocking out a few blog posts for Huffington Post, it also protects you from being totally screwed when the website is sold to a giant conglomerate and you don’t get anything. At least when you’re writing your own little blog, you’re getting nothing anyway, but without the painful screwing that the Huffington Post writers just experienced.

There’s no reason you have to write for someone else, especially when all you get is a byline. Thanks to all the different free blogging platforms that are available — Blogger, WordPress, Posterous — you can have your own blog and write for free to your heart’s content. And when someone makes an overture to buy you for $315 million, you don’t have to share it with anyone at all.

My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available on Amazon.com, as well as at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.

Photo credit: Daniel Borman (Flickr)

Who Owns Your Freelance Copyright? Not You

If you’re a freelance writer, graphic designer, or even a web designer, you don’t own the work you just did for a client.

As a ghost blogger and author, I have to keep different pieces of copyright information straight, and understand what I’m selling or giving away when I write something for a client or for me. As a published writer, I learned very early on about the different forms of copyright for the pieces I wrote. As a ghost writer, I also learned I don’t own a single character of what I write for a client.

Hubbard & Cravens in Broad Ripple, Indianapolis, IN

Coffee shops are filled with freelancers and entre-commuters. That's @JasonFalls in the black shirt. (No, the one on the left.)

This is often a point of contention between freelancers and small businesses, and their clients, when a relationship goes south. Graphic designers demand the return of their illustrations, web designers lock owners out of their website, and writers, well, fire off very well-written angry letters “impetrating the former habitué to refrain from using their discourse” (demanding the former client quit using their words — hey, we’re word nerds. What do you expect?).

The problem is, the creator of the work no longer has the rights to the work. If the client has paid you, then they own it, not you. You can’t even ask for it.

That’s because you just performed a work-for-hire service. Basically, that means you acted as an employee of the client, and performed a job function, namely, creating a logo, writing a blog post, or building a website.

If you had been hired as a full-time employee of the client’s and done that work, your employer would own all rights to your work, and could do anything they wanted with it — reproduce it, sell it, stamp it on scented soaps, whatever.

Work-for-hire works the same way: you were hired to perform a piece of work, just like an employee. And when you’re done, that means the client owns that piece, and can do anything they want with it, which means you can’t ask for it back when you and the client are pissed at each other.

Of Course, The Client Has To Pay You First

In our ghost blogging work, we also include a clause in our contract that the client does not own the work we create until they have paid us in full. This allows us to withhold future work until we’re paid, although we have never tried to reclaim work when clients slow pay.

And that’s the one problem for creative freelancers. It’s hard to reclaim creative work when a client hasn’t paid. Web designers have a little more leverage, especially if they also have access to the client’s server.

Website by Unpaid Web Designer

So What Can You Do?

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do when it comes to relinquishing your ownership. That’s one of those things you need to resign yourself to if you’re going to lead the life of a freelancer (although the Professional Artists League believes that work-for-hire is unethical and evil).

However, it also means you need to follow a few basic practices if you want to protect yourself in the future:

  • Don’t flesh out your own ideas or use your own creations in a client’s work. If you’re developing a new process or idea, or you have a new animated character, don’t put it in a client’s project. They own that idea from then on, and you can actually be sued for stealing your own idea later on.
  • If the client provides you with equipment, like a new computer, never work on your own stuff while using their equipment. The argument can be made that since you created something with their property, they own it. And while you could probably argue against it, chances are you don’t have the money to test that theory in court.
  • Whenever possible, try to include a revenue-sharing agreement in your contract. While this is harder when you’re doing small-time projects, if you’re a big-shot consultant, and you’re only being paid a small amount to come up with some huge revenue-generating ideas, ask to share some of the profits. It won’t always work, but it’s always worth asking. Who knows, you may get lucky and come up with a process that makes the client millions.

Do you have any work-for-hire suggestions for new freelancers? Any success stories or horror stories about a work-for-hire project? Let us hear from you in the comments.