Doing creative work for free, or asking creatives to work for free is a subject area that sees much heated discussion. With so little awareness or respect on either side of the equation, it’s clear why it’s such a hot-topic. This is a brief look at some of the most common misunderstandings and issues that people face when approaching creative work for free.

Why Creatives Should Never Work for ‘Nothing’


A few years ago I wrote a short blog titled “Why Creatives Should Never Work for Free“.

I was having a discussion recently about creatives working for free and it sparked me to re-read this post from 2013. I was surprised to find that I no longer agree with what I wrote then.

I sound pretty angry and aggressive in that post. Possibly a client had annoyed me, or it was off the back of a heated discussion with someone who clearly held the opposite point of view.

The sentiment is still valid – creative skill sets become devalued when people don’t think they deserve payment. It’s a really important issue. But my reaction in that post was not at all constructive: I got angry and preachy and basically said people were ignorant.

So today I decided to revisit the subject and am starting with a minor/major adjustment to the title; creatives should never work for nothing.  ‘Free’ implies purely financial gain, which is not always what it comes down to.

Creatives can absolutely work for ‘free’

First and foremost, it’s up to individuals to decide to do whatever they want to do. I have no right to stand up on a soap box and tell them that they’re ‘hurting the cause’ by accepting unpaid work.

What I urge creatives to do instead, is consider exactly what they’re getting in return. Money is just one option.

There’s also:


Let’s not forget that we start doing these creative things for the love of it. If you just want to do something for free, then who on Earth should stop you?


The real kind of exposure though. Not the ‘good exposure’ that people frequently tote as a benefit simply because they don’t have any money to offer you. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Experience/ Portfolio Material

Not the same as exposure – this would be work you undertake for free to develop your skills, practice & build up your own portfolio of work to show others. Whether work is valuable as experience or portfolio material depends on the individual, how much they’ve already done and whether it offers something new.

A Sense of Reward

There’s always value in doing something for someone as a nice gesture. Doing something for a friend to cheer them up, or taking part in unpaid charity work. This part also ties into:

Giving Back

As a creative, you will undoubtedly have developed your skill via use (at some point) of the enormous wealth of information available. Whether classes, clubs, groups, online tutorials, books or whatever. At some point, students become teachers, and there’s great value in passing on what you have learned to help the next lot of creatives to get to where you are too.


Trading and exchanging goods or services instead of payment is not a new phenomenon. Artists can trade art drawings, filmmakers can help out on each others projects, musicians collaborate on each others albums. Creatives can swap work, or owe favours either with other creatives or with anyone. Maybe your window cleaner will do your windows for free because you design him a new logo for his van.

Many of these different things will cross over one another, e.g. charity work might make you feel good for giving back, and also provide exposure and portfolio material – not to mention enjoyment.

It’s totally OK for creatives to work for free. It’s their choice entirely. Which brings me to the next point:

It’s OK to ask creatives to work for free…

…but it’s not OK to expect it and it’s totally OK for creatives to decline.

If you need something doing and you don’t have a lot of money, see what you else you can offer. Can’t pay wages? Offer to pay expenses. Have something you can exchange for services? Offer that.

If nobody agrees to your request, don’t be upset or offended.

Some creatives just can’t afford to work for free. They need every minute of their day to get their paid work done so that they can keep the lights on and put food in the fridge. Even if you offer a great trade in exchange for their help, they just might not be able to spare the time for anything that doesn’t bring in financial revenue.

And if you can afford to pay a creative for the work you need done, then you absolutely should pay them.

This is the part that goes back to my blog from 2013. Creatives don’t just wake up one day with a creative skill. They’ve invested time, money, blood, sweat and tears into their skill in order to get to the point where people will want to hire them. They often invest in equipment or resources so that they can do the job.

So they should be paid, even if sometimes they can’t be paid or, more often than not, won’t be paid. It’ll be their decision if the work is worth doing unpaid, but you should always try and get some money to them if you can.

The ‘Exposure’ Delusion

“I can’t pay you but it’ll be really great exposure”.

People really do need to stop offering exposure as an incentive to work unpaid, when they don’t actually have good exposure on offer. It’s making creatives jaded. I think it mostly comes from a lack of understanding of what exposure is.

Scenario 1: A dress maker makes a dress for a friend and it’s worn around town.

Scenario 2: The dress is to be worn on a red carpet event that had coverage by a fashion mag that will credit the dress maker positively for the work.

Scenario 1 is portfolio material, NOT ‘exposure.’ Yes people will see it, but nobody will be highlighting it, or promoting it specifically – nobody will know who made it, nor will they probably even ask. The only person who benefits is the person who just got a bespoke dress for free.

Scenario 2 is exposure. Exposure is like advertising your work; advertising is promotion. If you don’t credit people for their work then it doesn’t advertise them at all and there will be no return on the investment of their time.

The purpose of exposure is to generate awareness of the creative through their work, ideally to generate more customers and in the end, financial payment.

‘Intellectual Property’ is not optional

This part is super important.

It’s a huge topic, and I’m really just skimming the tip of the surface here, but I wanted to talk about intellectual property (IP) at least briefly. As a creative, I’ve been on the receiving end of peoples’ lack of understanding or respect for IP laws so it’s important to me that I at least try to cover a few points:

1. If you didn’t make it, you don’t own it

Not complicated. If someone else makes something it’s theirs (unless there is a prior agreement that says otherwise). You have no right to it whatsoever. By all means ask the IP owner if you want to use it, but you require permission before you can do anything at all, and permission may require payment.

2. Licence to use is not the same as ownership

Again, pretty simple. Terms of use should be agreed prior to the work, but the IP of work belongs to the person that created it, unless there’s a prior agreement stating otherwise. You can buy/agree to the licence to use creative works, but that’s not the same as owning the IP.

3. Licence to use is not necessarily unlimited

Check the terms of your licence to use the work. Stock music might be free to use for education or personal projects, but not free for commercial use. Attribution may be required or a link back to the creator.

4. Just because someone makes something for you, does not automatically mean you own it.

This is much like point 2. Unless previously agreed, the IP still belongs to the creator. It doesn’t mean you don’t have permission to use it, but the terms of use should be discussed in full, prior to doing the work.

5. You should assume that creatives working for free will want to retain the IP for their work

This is just some advice from my own experience. As above, unless specifically agreed between you and the creative, the IP will still belong to the creative by default. If they’re not being paid, it’s fair to assume that they may expect at least to retain the IP, so make sure you discuss all the terms of ownership and use prior to doing the work.

6. Owning IP does not necessarily mean carte blanche to use it as you please

Creatives must respect the rights of others too. Photographers can’t necessarily just sell a photo of someone without that person’s permission* – there may be a case of their right to privacy, or the photograph may contain someone else’s work and IP that they don’t give permission to share. For example, you can’t photograph an artist’s painting without their permission, then sell prints of the photo for yourself.

At all times I recommend discussion and agreement with any other creatives/subjects/participants involved of all terms of use and ownership prior to doing the work.

*this subject gets tricky, so I don’t want to delve too deeply here. Photographers rights are complex and depend on many factors, e.g. street photographer’s rights. It’s a much bigger topic and I may come back to it in a future post, but I urge everyone to read up on the details to avoid disagreements or even legal issues.

Why is this all so important?


We need a culture change so people stop taking advantage of each other and stop perpetuating the idea that creatives should work for free, regardless of their wishes or the circumstances.

How do we do that?

We start by not getting angry every time someone asks for creatives to work for free.

Let’s try and bridge the angry divide between people who think creatives should and shouldn’t work for free, and reduce the amount of enemies we make by telling people off for asking. Creatives are developing a reputation for this and worse – the aggression often makes people assume that the payment asked for is unreasonable, fuelling the issue further.

We treat others the way we want to be treated

It applies to creatives too. Make sure collaborators and contributors to your work get something in return for their time and efforts, or consider an option that doesn’t disregard someone’s IP and rights to be paid. Don’t just grab a picture from Google for your Youtube video when you can check for sites offering images royalty-free.

We take opportunities to discuss – not rant about – the subject

Too many people are just completely oblivious to the issue. It simply doesn’t occur to some people that creative work demands payment, the same way you would pay a plumber or builder. Educating people is a delicate issue and probably the best way to go about it is just to talk and not argue. Get chatting about different perspectives and opinions. Maybe in 2013 instead of telling people “Creatives shouldn’t work for free!” I should have posed the subject for discussion: “Should creatives work for free?”

And on that note, I’ll leave things there. I’d love to revisit parts of this in more detail (goodness knows I could talk at great length about it), but for now I’d be more interested to open the floor for further discussion on the topic. I don’t think it’s a black and white issue, but that’s just my opinion.

Do you think creatives should work for free? 


One thought on “Creative Work for Free – Do’s, Don’ts and Misunderstandings

  1. Very well said. I’ve seen a few cases in writing circles where people get aggressive and tell people they shouldn’t work for free at all. In one case one writer condemned another for having a story in a charity anthology.

    May I reblog this?

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