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This article was published on April 3, 2011

Should you give your work away for free online?

Should you give your work away for free online?
Martin SFP Bryant
Story by

Martin SFP Bryant


Martin Bryant is founder of Big Revolution, where he helps tech companies refine their proposition and positioning, and develops high-qualit Martin Bryant is founder of Big Revolution, where he helps tech companies refine their proposition and positioning, and develops high-quality, compelling content for them. He previously served in several roles at TNW, including Editor-in-Chief. He left the company in April 2016 for pastures new.

Last week, Andrew Dubber – an influential writer about the music industry – announced that he was giving away all the content on his New Music Strategies website.

“I hereby declare that every piece of content written by me for New Music Strategies up to the end of 2010… is totally without copyright restriction,” he wrote.

“You can do anything you like with it, and you don’t have to ask. You can sell stuff based on it, copy and paste it into magazines, make new and derivative stuff out of it, translate it, create products – whatever. You don’t have to ask me, pay me or even let me know. Because it’s not mine anymore.

“I’ll leave it up here so you can find it when you need it, and because there’s plenty of stuff that links to it out there on the internet – but I’m just looking after it. It belongs to everyone now.”

Dubber has released the content completely into the public domain with no restrictions whatsoever because, he says, it’s “a good thing to do, it’s an interesting thing to do.”

So, should you consider giving your work away for free? What’s in it for the person setting all their hard work free for others to potentially profit from? In Dubber’s case, he’s moving on to new projects and new ideas and so clearly sees no user in ‘owning’the content. “I suspect that making it part of shared culture, rather than a piece of intellectual property has the potential to open up new ideas, new conversations and new uses for the stuff I wrote and am no longer using,” he writes.

Profiting from giving it all away

That’s all well and good, but what if you want to make money from your work? Author and blogger Cory Doctorow has long given away his writing while continuing to make money from it. In a 2006 article for Forbes, he wrote:

“When my first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, was published… I also put the entire electronic text of the novel on the Internet under a Creative Commons License that encouraged my readers to copy it far and wide… A tiny minority of downloaders treat the free e-book as a substitute for the printed book–those are the lost sales. But a much larger minority treat the e-book as an enticement to buy the printed book. They’re gained sales.

“There’s no empirical way to prove that giving away books sells more books–but I’ve done this with three novels and a short story collection (and I’ll be doing it with two more novels and another collection in the next year), and my books have consistently outperformed my publisher’s expectations.”

Increased sales aren’t the only factor to consider. Throw in all the paid speaking engagements and the new opportunities and experiences that Doctorow has probably gained through the raised profile of having so many readers out there, and it’s clear that he’s benefitted greatly from the strategy.

Setting your hobby free

If you don’t class yourself as a ‘professional’, you may well have even more reason to allow others to use your work. While it would be brave for a photographer with the profile of David Bailey to give away his work online, if you’re further down the food chain, opening up your work in this way can be beneficial.

The default setting for photos on Flickr is that you retain full copyright. While it’s understandable that people would want to maintain control of their images, they may have a lot more to gain from opening them up for wider use.

See that photo at the top of this article? Like most of the images that accompany my posts, I found it by searching Flickr for images published under a Creative Commons license that allows commercial use. It’s a striking image of a woman photocopying her face and hands. Would you pay for it? Probably not, but if you scroll to the bottom of the text here, you’ll find a link to the photographer’s other images. You may like them, you may not – but you’ve discovered them – you can comment on them, engaging with the photographer. You could even potentially share them with others bringing an even wider audience their way. If the image hadn’t have been used here, you’d have never paid for it, but you’d never have discovered it in the first place either.

In many cases, hobbyists are never going to make a living from their work, but allowing others to use it can be a good way of gaining a larger audience and more attention. Who knows where that could lead? Maybe not to money, but if you were never seeking payment in the first place, you’ve lost nothing and could potentially gain a lot.

So, whether, like Andrew Dubber, you have no good reason to restrict your old work’s use, or like Cory Doctorow you think that free work can increase sales, or like the photographer of the image at the top of this page, you have work that’s cool but unlikely to ever actually make money, the benefits of freedom shouldn’t be ignored.

If you want to open up your work to others, a Creative Commons license is a good way of easily letting others know how they can use it. You can find out about the different licenses, and how to apply them, here.

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