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More Thoughts on Google

JUNE 17, 2009
I have been an illustrator through the entire transition to digital media. Many waves of apprehension have passed through our industry during this transition, some which proved unfounded, some of which proved accurate and more than justified. Google is providing fuel for a new wave of anxiety for artists. They might prefer it to be called “opportunity” but the fact is that this “opportunity” sets a precedent,  one which I believe will have negative results for our field.

Illustration is not in itself a “big business”, but illustrators do provide a service to big businesses. The way that we price our services has always been based on usage.  There are other factors as well, of course, but the scale of a project as it will appear when reproduced by the client has always been the most important determining factor in pricing illustration.

Google is asking artists to work in an inverted business model, paying less, and in fact nothing for greater usage.  In fact, the notion of being paid nothing for “exposure” is nothing new; as any art student will tell you; Craigslist is full of “entrepreneurs” and self-publishing authors who offer “exposure” as payment for participation in various projects. These projects almost always end in frustration and disappointment for all involved.  It is an equation that asks the artist to become an investor in a business they have no real stake or interest in, with out any leverage or real hope of financial return. Experienced illustrators generally avoid these projects.  Is the offer more valid when it comes from a company with stock trading at over $400 a share?

It is often pointed out that a plumber or other tradesperson would never work for free. The reason that artists are often asked to do this is because of two things: There is a general perception of us as emotional, talented children who live in an idealistic plane who do not care about financial matters.  The other factor is that we often play into this stereotype, to our peril. One way we do this is by working for “exposure”, which projects a fundamental insecurity about the perception of the value of one’s work. The very fact that a company like Google wants to use illustration proves that the work  has value.  But we need to ask for value in return.

There have been a number of comments to the effect that Google should “pay something” simply because of it’s ability to do so. I disagree. I think they should pay because that is the way that people get things. When we start giving huge corporations our work for free exposure, how do we then charge other clients?  I don’t blame Google- or any company- for not understanding how we work. But it is up to all of us to explain it.

An entity like Google, which generally does not create original intellectual property but aggregates it, benefits directly from exposure, as its ad sales are tied to traffic. Illustrators work in a totally different way- we work in symbiotic relationships with clients, providing support through custom-made visuals. It is not a symbiotic that relationship Google offers. In fact the relationship is more parasitical, only in this case it is the whale that wants to attach to remora.