The Debate Over Free Content

There’s some controversy swirling out there about whether it is fair that many writers (or “content providers”) create articles for for-profit sites free-of-charge. On the one hand, it hurts the many struggling writers who are trying to make a living out of journalism, technical writing or even fiction writing. On the other hand, if people want to spend the time and effort to write something for someone else and then just give it away, that should be their right.

A couple of recent articles on the subject, along with a couple of responses from successful authors I admire, seem to bracket the entire debate. Over at The Passive Voice, we have an excerpt from Kristen Lamb’s blog, where she rails against the unfairness of a world where most people expect to get either cheap or free books and stories. She’s basically responding to reports that used bookstores are making a come back and is lamenting that this is indicative of how most people believe writers will produce manuscripts regardless of whether they are paid or not. Obviously, her reasoning is a bit of a stretch, to put it mildly – after all, a writer certainly was paid when the book was first sold. Is the writer supposed to be paid every time the same copy is sold again? Or borrowed? – but her point is still valid. After all, in the 19th century, being a writer was an actual occupation. People who knew how to put words together were respected and could expect to earn a comfortable living as full time employees in several industries. Nowadays? Actual writing ability is largely ignored and most companies will pinch their already over-worked and over-tasked employees to do any needed writing, instead of hiring a dedicated expert.

 

In today's world, Mr. Beauchamp would be... well, I guess he would be me.

In today’s world, Mr. Beauchamp would be… well, I guess he would be me.

 

But Joe Konrath responds on his blog to Kristen’s post, saying basically, no one owes you a living. Just because you’ve produced something doesn’t mean everyone everywhere needs to keep paying you every time they look at it. Also, if you produced content on the internet for free and posted it for public consumption, don’t whine if no one wants to give you any money for it. No one asked you to do it in the first place! I largely agree with Konrath’s views. The glut of content on the internet will continue for the foreseeable future and forcing people to pay for more things isn’t going to do anything but drive free-content deliverers into an even bigger spotlight and/or increase piracy. Neither of those things would help the guy who wants to earn a living writing get paid for his work. In my view, Konrath’s point that this is simply the age we are living in and you have to adapt to it is pretty much spot on. Pirates will be pirates, hobby writers will be hobby writers and on-line companies will continue to try to figure out how to make the biggest bucks any way they can. Instead of whining about it, you should get serious about getting your work out there and getting people to consider paying to see more of it.

Oh, and don’t forget to make more of it. Lots more. Every hour spent ranting about the unfairness of the world is another hour neglecting your own work!

 

"You used to call me on my cell phone..."

“You used to call me on my cell phone…”

 

Another tidbit on this topic just recently popped up. Apparently, Stephen Hull, editor for the Huffington Post UK, crowed about how they don’t pay any of their writers. Their content is 100% free and so therefore somehow more “authentic.” I get what he means – their content producers aren’t beholden to sponsors or advertisers in any monetary way, unlike a lot of other for-profit businesses. However, this argument isn’t exactly accurate. After all, through the Huffington Post’s own selection and editing process, the content is certainly altered. The writer is beholden to them, at least. Also, each writer has their own slant on anything they’re writing about. There’s no such thing as complete objectivity. Saying you use only volunteers for your writing staff doesn’t somehow auto-magically increase their willingness to set aside personal bias and opinion. And just as an added note, being proud of not paying employees while raking in 2.3 billion dollars in revenue represents a disturbing continuation in the glorification of downsizing and maximizing productivity. This has been a trend that has been strangling the middle class and discouraging upward socio-economic mobility for more than a generation.

So, a slow clap for Steven Hull and HuffPo, I guess? Good job? Way to be a part of the problem? If you’re so concerned with the “authenticity” of your content, why not just grant full disclosure? Isn’t that what most reputable news organizations do? If a writer was paid by you, then just say that. If they were paid by Coca-Cola, then just say that. Where’s the problem? Personally, I’d love to see a full-time writer for Coca-Cola fence with one from Pepsi in a monthly “Cola Wars” battle of wits in a dedicated column on HuffPo or Mother Jones or MSN or whatever. That would be fun! Well, sort of. The Cola Wars are mostly over, so I guess they’d need more topical industries.

Maybe have the makers of Levitra battle the makers of Viagra in post after post of innuendo-filled jibes about the relative size of their customer bases? OK, now that would be funny.

 

"Let me just come clean and admit the girth of our profit margins. I just want you to get a firm grasp of my point."

“Let me just come clean and admit the girth of our profit margins. I just want you to get a firm grasp of my point.”

 

But I digress.

Obviously, Mr. Hull’s admission sparked all kinds of indignant outrage. Good old Chuck Wendig let loose with a piece full of hysterical vitriol on his blog. It’s fun reading, but I think he goes a bit too far when he says “No money means no checks, no balances.” As I suggested above, there is no absolute way to secure complete objectivity, regardless of pay. Best thing to hope for is that the hosting site grants full disclosure, as well as doing its own fact checking, of course. But, in one way I find I am in complete agreement with Chuck. Although he didn’t make the point directly, he alluded to it. A world where we allow, even encourage, jobs to start being done for free is a world that only makes our already tilting free-market economy sway even more dangerously toward favoring the privileged class.

Take this as an example. A man walks into a fast-food joint. He approaches the manager and says he loves being a grill chef and has no need of money. He would like to be the restaurant’s grill chef free of charge. The manager immediately puts him to work behind the grill and fires the guy he was paying. Now, that guy has to go get a job at another restaurant, only he’s finding more and more grill chefs are being replaced by these “hobby chefs.” He has to take jobs for less and less pay at worse and worse restaurants just to stay in his chosen industry. His socio-economic mobility goes into a downward spiral. Consequently, he can’t afford to buy as many things as he used to, which affects the profitability of other industries around him.

Now, I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but I think many people don’t realize the role each one of us plays in our capitalist economies of the democratic nations of the west. While it’s great to have so many freedoms, for the love of Andrew Carnegie, you have to be responsible! For myself, I enjoy writing Battletech fan fiction, but I would never dream of submitting my stories to the license holders and saying “Here you go! Feel free to use any and all of this in your published material! Free of charge!”

But people will do what they want in a free society and I can only offer my humble opinion about what I believe to be right or wrong. Consequently, I side mostly with Joe Konrath on this whole debate. If you don’t like not getting paid for your work, then just don’t do it. Either find something else to do with your time or get your head in the game and find ways to monetize your product. Don’t sit around and whine about stuff being unfair. Write your congressman if you feel that strongly about it, but then immediately get back to writing your own stuff and trying to figure out how to beat the game.

 

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Thanks for reading! As always, feel free to share your thoughts below in the comment section.

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Until next time, go read a book and review it. While you’re at it, order a pizza and tip the delivery guy. 😉

 

 

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