Why work for free? – by “Max C.”

In 2007, Mark Helprin wrote an editorial entitled “A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright?” Larry Lessig, the Aragorn of anti-copyright, replied,

Lessig releases the hounds

“So I’ve gotten (literally) scores of emails about this piece by Mark Helprin promoting perpetual copyright terms. ‘Write a reply!’ is the demand. But why don’t you write the reply instead. Here’s a page on wiki.lessig.org. Please write an argument that puts this argument in its proper place.”

327 edits and four years later, you can still find the ongoing rebuttal that Lessig never had to write. Perhaps most importantly though, all these authors gave their work away, copyright-free, for free. Since other people have already rebutted Helprin, I’d like to ask a different, trickier question:

Why do people do things for free?

I hope Mr. Helprin has an answer. I hope he wrote his books not just for a nickel every time they sold a copy, but so his ideas could reach across the page and touch everyone that read his thoughts. Before Mt. Everest killed him, George Malloy was asked why he climbed mountains, and he replied, “Because it’s there.” It is natural in all of us to work, and strive, and create, even if it costs us dearly. Copyright law does not strongly incentivize creation. It encourages corporate sponsorship of creation, it creates paths of monetization and control for art, but for the most part, I believe people don’t do things for a buck.

This used to host an image macro. But the server went down. But we should still ask: is this man being paid to wear bread?

Francis Ford Coppola on film: “Who says art has to cost money? Who says artists have to make money?… Try to disconnect the idea of cinema with the idea of making a living and money.” To be clear, I think Coppola is wrong. I think the best artists will make money, will warrant patronage, and profit from their skill. But for the first time in history, it might not require resources to be an artist: the skill and publishing costs have fallen so far that we all can contribute. Coppola says that in olden times, artists didn’t make money. Back then, only the fabulously wealthy could engage in art and culture: they were the most opulent extravagances. Today, we have Google Art. Anyone can see the great classic paintings, in exquisite detail, with a $300 computer and an internet connection. But we also have icanhazcheezburger. Anyone can make the next great meme with a $300 computer and an internet connection. Art today is consumed more widely and made by more people than it ever has been before. Justin Bieber’s hit single “Baby” has grossed 455,000,000 views in under a year on Youtube. (Did that freely available art hurt Bieber’s success? Probably not, claims Google.) As audiences and producers change, it’s important for our societal standards to push past thinking about copyright as a way to restrict or monetize things, and instead think of most creative contributions as a donation into the community: once unshackled onto the internet, don’t attempt to re-cage it, and certainly don’t try to force people to pay for it.

Social psychology has grappled with questions about why we help people. From Latane & Darley, we get the Bystander effect. Yet the internet is teeming with bystanders, and people still help out, enough to generate wonderful resources like Stack Overflow, Yahoo Answers, and Youtube comments (ok, so sometimes they aren’t wonderful resources). The most relevant ideas in internet helpfulness, and the things that might push us past copyright in creative endeavors, are the following:

• Imitating other helpful people

• The Internet alleviates a lot of time pressures

• Similarity, or lack thereof

Imitating other helpful people

It’s well known that some communities foster excellent helpful communities, while others are rife with suspicion, bigotry, and hatred. The internet does occasionally produce the Gabriel theory of greater internet fuckwad theory. Yet there also exist places on the internet where trolling is hated and injustices corrected.

By building internet communities where stand on each other’s creative works, via remixing, memes, and constructive criticism, it’s possible to build a post-copyright world. We naturally imitate other helpful people: join a community of helpful artists, and you’ll be inclined to give away your creative works too.

No time pressures

When hurrying by a man lying face-down in a pool of blood on the sidewalk, you might be too distracted with your own hurried life to even notice him, much less help him. This is an embarrassing yet real tendency of humans. Yet the internet is usually engaged in leisure time, when you have no pressures. Therefore, people on the internet consistently undertake projects that take hundreds of hours to produce something that they never profit a dime on.


Finally, the internet is faceless. We are brought together by shared interests, or similar aspirations. Does the internet reveal profound bigotry and prejudice? Yes. But is it possible to externally check if the person you’re IMing is white? Or judge the age of the previous commenter? By removing these prejudices, we break away from our implicit associations and prejudices, creating a freer world where we are more likely to help those of us that are externally different.

The great hippie commune never happened for a lot of reasons. Most importantly, humans need production to exist. Production of food, of machinery, of services. But we have the opportunity for a different kind of commune, one of shared knowledge and creativity. Production of an idea is a long and arduous process. But its reproduction is a few kilobytes across a wire, around the world a billion times over again. If Bieber can do it, if Wikipedia can do it, we can build a communal expectation of free. Once we’re all helping each other, we’ll have made an intellectual community we ought to all be proud of.

3 thoughts on “Why work for free? – by “Max C.”

  1. You may be right that people “don’t do things for a buck” but I think you have to analyze that claim further. Specifically, people do things because they feel a sense of responsibility (selfless motivations) and because they want something out of it (selfish motivations).

    Money is really a store of value and way of denominating value so when people work for money, they are working to get something that can be converted into something they want.

    I think a lot of online activity isn’t selfless in nature or about personal responsibility as it doesn’t fall under the “hurrying by a man lying face-down in a pool of blood” example. So why do people do some work online for free? I think it’s largely for recognition — and the emotional as well economic benefit that come with it.

    People answer questions on Quora so they can be seen as the authority in subjects and thereby influence the discussion online. They can then recruit people, get job offers, etc.

    A number of econ papers cover how people work on open source software as a way to improve their professional credentials and reputation.

    Ultimately, people may not work for a buck online but they are working for something that can be converted into something they want. Influence and money both can accomplish it, and I think it would be an oversight to not recognize these selfish motivations.


  2. While the release of work by a creator on to the internet is one thing, copyright doesn’t limit itself to internet works. And what about the artist that doesn’t place his/her creation on the internet but instead lives in the physical world, selling his/her goods/creations, and then finds that sales go down because someone else placed his/her art online. And that action resulted in someone else recreating it in many other manners, leaving no market for the original artist. Should that be okay?

    While the wealthy may have been the only ones capable of purchasing art in the ‘olden days’, they were not the ones creating it. The term ‘starving artist’ didn’t simply appear. Many artists/creators poor every minute of spare time into their creative process, and if they are artists by profession that may mean that they’re lives are literally consumed by their creative process. They’re work is no less valuable than others’ work–making accounting spreadsheets or ringing up customers at the grocery store. So why shouldn’t they have the right to keep others from copying their work and basically employing their efforts for free? Would you like to volunteer your best work to a community and then find that a corporation that has completely opposing views has begun profiting from your work–making money from your now involuntarily free labor?
    The answer is not simply to abolish copyright. There needs to be many changes. I agree that it is not currently helping to spur creations. But that doesn’t mean that no protections would help creations.


  3. I must strongly, but respectfully, disagree with a number of things you have said, but one in particular is worthy of analysis: “Copyright law does not strongly incentivize creation. It encourages corporate sponsorship of creation, it creates paths of monetization and control for art, but for the most part, I believe people don’t do things for a buck.”

    There are certain things that people will do without any expectation of monetary reward, but there are others where being paid is at least a one of the motivating factors (and often the prime one). It is important to remember that most large undertakings come from a composition of numerous motivations, and even where other motivations exist being able to be paid for the work may be one major motivation behind a great deal of it.

    I suspect for instance that none of the Disney movies which entertain my daughter so thoroughly would not have been made without the protections of copyright and the ability to be paid for them.

    Now, that is not to say that copyright as it is should not be reformed. I strongly believe that its term is too long and the fair use exceptions should be greatly strengthened. But, I also believe that copyright and direct monetization can and does motivate at least some creativity, and that there is a lot of creative work which would not exist without copyright. While I think copyright should be reformed, it should not be abolished, and I do not think there should be a “communal expectation of free.”


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