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Artist RightsBusinessIdeas/Commentary

Stephen Silver: “Stop Working For Free!”

Character designer Stephen Silver is mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it anymore. Silver, who is the designer of shows like Kim Possible and Danny Phantom, posted an impassioned YouTube video a few days ago urging young artists not to give their work away for free.

Silver’s message is simple but priceless: if you don’t respect your own creative skills, others won’t either. This has always been a difficult idea for creative people to grasp—myself included—because we enjoy what we do for a living. Most young artists don’t enter the animation field because they want to become rich; they do it because they love the art form. But not everyone shares that idealism. Businesspeople and corporations are in it purely for the money, and they will gladly not pay you what you’re worth if it enhances their bottom line.

Almost every creative person eventually comes around to the concept that Silver is advocating in his video. The sooner you do it in your career, the better off you will be.

  • Shazbot

    Thank you, Stephen, very well said. I can only add this to your comments: too many artists are giving their talents and ideas away…to fan art and fan fiction. Funny dialogue, good storylines, interesting plot ideas, lavish imagery…all wasted on someone else’s characters and concepts, just so the artist can express his/her affections, or be part of a fandom, or just to show off. What a freaking waste. To such artists I say: stop giving your best stuff away! If you have a good idea based on something you’ve seen on TV, the movies, or read in a book – take that idea and apply it to something original that YOU created. You’d be surprised how you can adapt ideas inspired by other works to grow it into a unique product – YOUR product. There is way too much free eye candy on the web. If you’re robbing yourself just to get a “like” on Deviant Art, you’re a sucker, exactly the sort of sucker Stephen talks about in his video. Break free of fan obsession and CREATE YOUR OWN. That’s what REAL artists do.

    • Lauren

      That’s a really good point, one I’ve never heard made before, but I never posted anything original online in the case that it could be stolen… Am I just being paranoid, or is idea theft common?

      • AmidAmidi

        That’s like saying you won’t leave the house because you might be the victim of a crime. Yes, crime is common, but the rewards of leaving the house outweigh the risks. A great idea that is never seen by anybody isn’t worth anything.

      • Skent

        I’ve seen people with this paranoia, and then you see their stuff, and the recurring theme seems to be derivative projects that aren’t that unique and original in the first place. If you have good ideas, there’s generally more where that came from.

        If your work is out there and people are seeing your work, if it gets ‘stolen’, they’ll notice. And if nothing else, you will know it was worth stealing.

      • Jason

        Yes and no, if you never put anything out there, no one is going to see it and it’s as good as to yourself. However, it never hurts to watch your back and use common sense. A good start is to put your damn name on it! Make it known who you are and what you do, it helps to have a few close friends or relatives know too, that way in case any character or story theft arises, they’ll have your back. Don’t throw too many things out, keep original drawings, sketches, stories, scripts, etc. If something you made really starts to get attention, a lawyer might not be overkill. And if any person or company asks you to sign something, submit something, or create something for them, KNOW what you’re getting into. They might tell you your ideas are too crap for you to be compensated and credited, but apparently not crap enough for you to get your rights back. Yeah, sucks when that happens, so READ and KNOW, and have a lawyer read if you’re having doubts. Finally, don’t underestimate Google, search and then search images. If you see your ideas under someone else’s name or being used to someone else’s benefit without your permission, don’t hesitate to take action and then legal action if the offender fails to cease and desist. It’s not too common, but from time to time you just get people with no character or values taking whatever they can to desperately get money or attention.

    • AmidAmidi

      Fantastic comment! There is no doubt that fan art/projects are an easy way to draw attention. For example, create a live-action re-enactment of Toy Story and get 8 million views. The trend is encouraged by Hollywood, which enjoys free advertising every time a fan creates a piece based on one of their properties.

      Being unoriginal is a fundamental part of the entertaininment industry and is legitimized by name directors who work in Hollywood. Directors are more comfortable working on existing franchises and properties instead of creating their own. There’s a big safety net in dealing with a known quantity. It means you don’t have to put yourself out there as an artist. Doing a “risky” reboot of an existing property is still far less risky than introducing a concept from scratch.

      Nevertheless, the biggest rewards and cultural impacts still belong to those who create original work, whether it’s George Lucas and “Star Wars” or Pen Ward and “Adventure Time.”

      • Raven M. Molisee

        Down-voted for linking to the thing you’re complaining about getting too many hits.

    • Ronnie

      By your definition, aren’t animators.. not real artists? After all, they’re only drawing characters that higher-up concept artists visually created, and storyboarders wrote? Should Alex Ross never paint the Justice League again because, shock of shocks, he didn’t CREATE them? Should Paul Dini never ‘waste’ his words on another Batman story again? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding HELL NO, because your points are based on a hell of a faulty premise- anything an individual didn’t create is worthless in their hands. And the whole of the comics industry, the DCAU, everything, stands to prove you hella wrong.

      • jonhanson

        The difference is all of the people you’re talking about are getting paid to do work for a large brand, rather than just doing it for free.

      • Shazbot

        ^Exactly; thank you, jonhanson. I’m not talking about artists who are being PAID to draw someone else’s characters. That’s not fan art. That’s professional art. There IS a difference. And a professional understands that difference. I wrote my post because it’s appalling how much effort would-be artists put into fan art and writing when that effort could be much better directed into adding to their portfolios or into something that will generate income. I’m not criticizing their talent. I’m saying that all that effort could be put to better use to improve their lives and the industry as a whole.

        • Ronnie

          Only difference is a pro’s more likely phoning it in for the money- confer almost every modern iteration of the classic cartoon greats. And to be honest, just because you can draw doesn’t mean you can design. As an artist and writer, I’ve realized something- I can draw pretty fine. But when I design on my own, I tend to come up with, well, stuff that’s below the caliber or not the style to suit my original stuff. (As of now, at least- I am working on my own time at improving that to a level I’d feel comfortable posting online.) But honestly, to write off fanfic or fanart as a ‘waste of time’ is stupid. Fic can help you hone how you write, it’s wonderful practice. I know this because the difference between what I wrote two years ago and what I wrote recently is night and day. And to be fair, for some it’s more practice than others- what is being a staff writer on a series but working with the characters and premise you’ve been given? The only difference between a well written fanfic and a Timothy Zahn Star Wars novel, is the latter was paid and, if it’s post-Jedi, more likely to have his Mara-Sue in it than the fanfic.

      • the Gee


        Ronnie, you seem to be misunderstanding what Shazbot wrote.

        The examples you gave are of people who get paid for creative work.

        What Shazbot is getting at is if you are going to be doing creative endeavors and not expecting to be paid for them then you should make your own work based on your own ideas. To spend the time and the effort using other people’s/company’s intellectual properties is not time well spent because you are probably not going to make money off of those efforts. In fact, others could probably find ways of making money off of your ideas, your efforts without paying you a dime.

        Doing something for the love of doing it is great. But, if someone is not only talented but also creative then they should be capable of creating something from whole cloth. Hopefully that is the case.

        A lot of entertainment that is made now is derivative of older ideas. It is the way it is. But, that basically results in a stagnation of culture on some level, right? So, the fan-fiction is not broadening culture. Just like the constant sequels in movies or the ten year TV shows or the reboots of this or that story doing much to expose younger artists and younger future executives to Really Good Stuff. That’s one thing which should change.

        Maybe then people like Dini or Ross will do nothing but spend their creative juices on something they created and have a lot of say on things done with those ideas, like Amid’s examples of George Lucas and Pen Ward.

        So, you should probably re-read what he wrote.

    • Raven M. Molisee

      I think a distinction needs to be drawn between people who participate in fanart for attention and those who do it because they are deeply impassioned by a unique set of characters and/or story that someone else has created. In most animation projects you’re going to be working with other people’s characters anyway… Why not practice that kind of empathy long before you actually enter the field?

      Perhaps I’m biased… I got my first storyboard job on a show that I was truly in love with. I spent countless hours absorbed in those characters outside of work, before AND after I got the job. I think it paid off… cuz, well I’ve been in the industry almost a decade now and I’m very happy with where its taken me. Just because you start with fanart, doesn’t mean you’ll never do anything original. Why keep all your love to yourself? If someone wants to do it and they’re really great at it, then more power to them.

      • Tim

        I agree. Doing fan art is one’s own choice. Stephen’s rant is about when an individual or studio asks you to do art for free. It’s one thing to draw a favorite character from a film and post it on your blog, and quite another for someone to ask you to do a poster, character design, or newspaper ad for free.
        Working for yourself for free is fine. It’s an investment in yourself that may pay off. Working for free for a client is bad business all around.

    • jmahon

      Tad Stones had a blog post similar to this(forgive me for not being able to find it at the moment), denouncing fanart and the like. Not that it was a bad thing, in fact a lot of it was wonderfully creative and very good fan art isn’t difficult to find, but you are essentially advertising someone else’s creative work for free. Any time else, they’d be paying you to do it. Stuart Immonen wrote a lot about the topic, as well, about drawing pictures at conventions and how he and many other artists had received a lot of backlash for not giving away his drawings for free at conventions to those who lined up for one, and responding to how doing so was “ripping off” the fans, etc.

      I personally have no problem with the odd doodle- every artist worth their salt has drawn Hellboy once or twice, or example- but a big leap many fledgling internet artists take is when they go from creating fan art of things they love to creating their OWN things, that’s when they finally enter the big leagues. Tad mentioned that a lot of his jobs(and the jobs of others) included working on or with characters someone ELSE created, or that he needed to create according to someone ELSE’S rules, but such things are an exception to the formula, and to develop your creativity, an artist needs to try and create new things from their own mind. It’s encouraging to hear similar things from industry vets about it.

    • I totally agree. I attended some con’s over the past few years, mostly selling DVDs of my independent film and some art, all personal stuff. However this past year I tried something at NYComic Con and sold commissions and talked about my day job working at Nick. I made 4x more than I normally do mostly doing commissions. I made a lot of money and had fun but I feel kinda sullied. I really used to care more about the purity of what was mine and I hated seeing everyone else exploit what’s not theres. It still bothers me. I am not sure if I will do it again. I am heartened to see others out there like me who feel the same.

  • Good call Steven. And while I think there is something to be said for working for free in any career early on in life, it’s true, artists are some of the only people who are regularly expected to do work for free. I mean most artists are passionate weirdos that would do it for free anyway, unlike plumbers or attorneys, and I think that’s where companies have realized they’ve got us. Also, myself included, a lot of artists are partially artists because they’re introverts who part of the reason they made art was to sit by the sidelines and avoid conflict, so asking these people to engage in even a little bit of conflict can sometimes be difficult. There’s also this precedent, and i’ve been told this by a lawyer before that “if you ask for x or if you ask for y you might get fired.” But, if we allow ourselves to be expendable, we will be expendable.

    • atc483

      I can certainly vouch for not liking conflict. Never looked at it that way.

  • akira

    Lots of people started out paying their dues before they got fairly paid. i’m sure nobody would rather not get paid, but at least you got some business experience and something to put on your resume. if everybody charged as much as this guy, they’d probably get less jobs and he’d get more.

    • AmidAmidi

      Congrats on doing an excellent job of misinterpreting and mangling Stephen’s point. Please go back and watch the video.

    • My first job out of college I was fairly paid. So was everyone else I know who is working full time as an artist. Several people who I know went and did speculative non paid work, or just worked “for an animation company because they might give me a job afterwards!” wound up with NOTHING for all that hard work other than making it harder for people who can NOT survive without pay to live.

      My rent is LOW for this area and it’s 1200 a month. I can’t survive without being paid. I refuse to “pay my dues” when I believe I paid it with all the damn hard work I put into becoming a better artist.

  • AmidAmidi

    Mark – Thank you for sharing your thoughts! Your perspective on the art form is, as always, greatly valued and appreciated.

  • Anonymous

    I think the onus is on employers to stop taking free labour and for governments to legislate against it. Due to the more competitive labour market more affluent young people are going to take unpaid roles to get the leg up. It’s not just a case of refusing when there are such inequality.

  • Jerry

    Bravo Stephen!!! Thanks for expressing what I’ve believed for years.

  • Mike Scott

    Man, this message arrived at just the right time for me. Thank you Stephen. You’ve struck a chord within me.

  • Mark Sheard

    Here here!

  • Seni Oyewole

    Preaching to the choir, Mr. Silver.

  • Tim

    I still get requests from people to illustrate a children’s book idea they have… for free, in hopes that a publisher will pick up the deal and we’ll all be rich. I have told more than one person that if I have time to work on spec, I will work on my own ideas (yes, I have an imagination, too!).
    Thanx Stephen! Well said!

  • Very, very well said. Unnpaid internships have got to go the way of the dinosaur. A sandwich and/or a metro card is not a substitute for a salary. Especially if you’ve got an outstanding student loan on your hands.

  • marti386

    This needs to go MASSIVELY viral.

  • Stephane Dumas

    That reminds me more or less, about what Canadian animator from Montreal, Claude Robinson faced with Cinar (now known as Cookie Jar), here 2 articles from 2009
    Most of the articles we find about Claude Robinson and Cinar on the www are in French.

    On a off-topic sidenote; fanarts, fanfics and even fanfilms could be a subject for a future thread.

  • eric

    I like what stephen here is saying, because it’s true! BUT it doesn’t apply to me.

    For example, I do animations, comics, and drawings for free because I hate money and I love to draw for fun. I don’t mind being poor and hungry. If I’m not into what someone’s asking me to do then I just won’t do it. Most of the time it’s close friends who are non-corporate/poor friends asking me to do something anyways, which Stephen kinda mentions (charity/team projects).

    I just believe money isn’t something everybody needs. Some people just need to draw. So I’m sorry if I’m “ruining” it for everybody, but that’s your own fault if you believe you need money to survive in a world where food and shelter is all around FOR FREE.

    • Ms.Nibs

      Do you have a family, by any chance? It’s amazing how fast money will apply to you when a kid is involved.

      • eric

        Just eat the kid.

    • May be fine for you, but you realize that people like you who decide not to charge are the reason many large corporations now try and give out free internships or ask people like me to work for free. “Eric there will do it for free, so why should I pay you? Here, I’ll give you minimum wage that won’t even cover your rent”
      No. That sort of mind set you have actually HURTS, VERY BADLY HURTS the rest of us. If you are in fact just doing it for friends, and I mean friends you’ve known forever, that’s fine. If by friends you mean people who approached you kindly on the internet with real projects that could have paid someone else’s rent, then no. You’re part of the problem.

      • eric

        I agree with all of you. It’s just that I’m more willing to help with something that I stand for.

        Let’s say for example, I’m a fan of animal rights, so if someone from a big animal rights organization, like Humane Society of America, comes to me and says “hey we like what you do, want to do this project? We’ll pay x amount of dollars.” I’d just do it regardless of what they pay me or even if they decide to not pay me at all.

        Now if something like McDonalds came to me, and wanted to pay me loads of cash for some animated ad, I’d probably tell them to piss off and never ask me something like that again.

        Those artists out there (or whatever talent related job they do) who have a similar mindset as me shouldn’t be the ones to blame for all of your money problems. Yes, I agree with you all in the sense that if a new great young artist is doing it just to get exposure and eventually wants to jump on the big money train, then yeah that person should watch this video because they’re doing it free for all the wrong reasons. But if someone like me, who is doing it for free for righteous reasons, then we shouldn’t be “blamed”.

        So basically what I’m getting at is this:

        doing it for free for exposure = stupid

        doing it for free because you love what it is you’re doing it for (if it’s not charity) and you don’t really care what other people think about you = not stupid

        If you like money, then yeah don’t do it for free. That’s simple math. But don’t NOT do it for free because every artist is complaining that people are doing art for free.

  • VP

    You are so right!!!! :D

  • stephen silver

    CJ you hit the nail on the head with this to. This is a huge problem and it needs to be said and spead just as much.

  • Shazbot

    “Also, you admitted yourself that fan art has “funny dialogue, good storylines, interesting plot ideas, [and] lavish imagery”; these things have value. And for a “REAL artist”, “express[ing] his/her affections” is one of the most powerful motivations for doing creative work in the first place–to communicate emotion, often via empathy. The choice of subject matter does not devalue the artist’s work, their motivation, or the positive qualities that you have admitted it may possess.”

    Yeah, some fan art might have those qualities. If it does, why is the artist GIVING IT AWAY FOR FREE? Why take a good bit of dialogue and give it to Twilight Sparkle instead of to a character you concocted on your own – a character that, if enough time and effort is invested in it (instead of aiming all that time and effort into providing free advertising for Hasbro’s line of toys and cartoon shows) might generate income for YOU?

    What “value”, exactly, is derived from fan art except for the owners of the object of the artist’s affection? If an artist has a passion for a set of characters belonging to another…then perhaps that artist needs to redirect his passion. What happened with Raven is all well and good, but she is a very rare exception. That show she was so obsessed over could have gone off the air before she could make any professional contributions to it, and then what would have become of all the passion she invested in its characters? Time is precious. Time has VALUE. An artist is better off, I think, using time to create his or her own product instead of throwing it away on something that will be glanced at, quickly forgotten, and never put a dime in that artist’s pocket.

    • Somnius5271

      Well, firstly, artists who produce fan art can make money from it, by selling it to other fans (though I know this is a legally risky idea). Also, fan art can serve as advertisement for the artist who makes it: people are “drawn in” (pardon the pun) to an artist’s portfolio by noticing familiar characters and ideas, then experiencing their other work. Fan art can complement an artist’s original work.

      However, I hope you understand that art doesn’t have to be a commercial product. Its value isn’t monetary only, and that applies to time spent, as well. If you’re the owner of your own brand and business (as most artists are) or working in a creative industry, I agree that you should be extremely careful with how much work you do for free and who you do it for (and always avoid spec work, as I mentioned before).
      But separate the business of art from doing art for the sake of it. Art for art’s sake, or for personal enjoyment, has its own value to the creator and to all who experience it. The goal isn’t always to make money.

      Putting this whole argument aside, Shazbot, are you an artist, yourself? I’m not asking because I want to set up an ad hominem argument or the like; I’m genuinely curious.

  • Adam

    Brilliant rant – it all rings true. Working as an illustrator, it’s amazing how many people, without artistic or design skills themselves, feel positively entitled to take the coolness, charm or humour found in the skills of others either for free or with the intent to disproportionally profit from it.

    It’s not just big businesses either. So many people have ‘clever’ start-up ideas that only work using the creative work of others, but they don’t have the money to pay for anything yet! Of course if they ever do make a profit, they’ll believe it was their idea that was the important thing, not what sold it. These kind of rip-off merchants will often eventually reveal a very patronising attitude (maybe after initially being floored in amazement by a portfoilio). They thought it would be ‘nice’ for an artist to have a ‘little project’, but luckily they had a nephew all along who ‘knows a bit about art’ and can do it for nothing.

  • Sparticus

    This! Not everyone wants to be a pro, and fanart can be fun! It’s a shame when someone who clearly has the chops to do original stories never ventures out of fanwork, but there’s also plenty of artists who DON’T have the chops to do original stories who are wallowing out there trying desperately to get people to like their stuff.

    Besides, fanworks are free advertising in the same way fandom in general is free advertising. If you don’t like fanworks, you essentially don’t like fandom. No fandom = no audience. No audience = your stuff gets canned.

  • 100% Agree!

  • Ms.Nibs

    There is one element I’m noticing that’s not being mentioned that I think might perpetuate artists to be ‘taken’. Not everyone goes to high end art schools, so perhaps this applies to those who have to go with the less expensive ones. My daughters friend has recently completed her schooling as an animator and while she did learn the skills and grew quite a bit artistically, the one thing that was lacking was any hard knowledge about how to deal with the business side of art. No classes on how to interpret or write contracts, how to arrive a fair price for her work as freelancer,…nothing of that sort was required. I know her teachers had tales of woe and advice, but that’s not quite the same. So my question is, do you think schools have any part in this?

  • eric

    the eat acorns one.

    But no, really, I’m not trying to be a jackass. I survive without money. It’s not so farfetched. I came to the realization that I can still animate and not be subject to a government that gives us the illusion that if we don’t have money then we’ll starve die.

    Yes, Ms. Nibs is correct, if you have a child, then yeah MAYBE you will need some cash. I have friends who live in areas, even in USA, who survive solely on their own crops and built shelters who have children. The difference is that they don’t animate, but a few of them are artists and do sell their art only to use the money to buy more art supplies.

    • jackadullboy

      Hmm, I see you dodged the question there…

  • atc483

    Well I’d sure like to use this as a reply to the folks who ask me for requests.

  • Olivia Amoah

    Thanks so much for this! I’m only 15 and this has literally changed my perspective on EVERYTHING I thought was benefiting me before. My mom also thanks you for the great advice. It will definitely benefit me in the future. I know my future will turn out to be everything I want it to be thanks to all these great tips I get from people like you :)

  • CoolDude118

    10 years ago when I was first starting out I did a few “test” animations for some companies to show them what I could do. They even asked me to send the Maya files too! So I did because I didn’t know any better and I was eager to break in. They said thanks but we are going to keep looking.Turns out they ended up using my “tests” in their game! Totally sleezy move. Never again…

    I approached the world that day…wiser

    My advice: Be careful of any studio asking you to do a “test”. Chances are they are just fishing for free animations to bulk up their game library. And stay away from any studio asking for advice on how to rig a character or animation approaches. Steve said it best, “Your time is worth 40 years PLUS the 10 minutes.” Charge em!! You are worth it!

  • mick

    He is quite plainly saying if someone asks you to do a job for free that ordinarilly an artist would be paid for then tell them to feck off. Payment can come in many forms obviously but, exposure, experience and portfolio pieces are not worth your while. It’s a really simple message and no amount of discussions on the nature of fan art will change what he is saying

  • Glenn

    PREACH ON BROTHER! I have learned that people value what they pay for, and conversely they dismiss what is too easily attained. You are absolutely right

  • Michael

    Well it looks if you have been …… all over. And now need to let the world know what you think about working for free.
    It is still your own choice to do so.

    But what you can do is make a contract or an agreement that you get paid in the end .
    So they can see you mean business after all an your not stupid
    To be honest about your topic instead of putting a lot of time into exposing your talent
    around the world that takes time to.
    And the competition is killing.
    You could use an Agent but they take 15% for using your talent as well, and not guaranty any work.

    I work in the Movie Industry for 25 years and some times you do something for free because you really know that that will help the producer ( you can mail them and wait for reply that you ar doing it for free but as the product get launched you get pay a fee…
    it’s the old no cure no pay way.
    It created me a lot of work … mostly is paid of.

    By the way today working for free means INTERN!! they get really used !
    The come up with brilliant ideas and mostly a thank you for working on that wonderful project.

    We are creatives sorry but no body really needs us…… they do need DOCTERS!

  • Wayne Carlisi

    Bravo, bravo, bravo. All young and old artist should listen to Stephen.
    Iv been burned in my time and finally wised up. Everything Stephen says
    is the hole truth and nothing but the truth.

  • Paul N

    I’ve seen this complaint endlessly over the years in various places, including the TAG blog. And yet here we are still. It needs to stop, yes, but everyone seems to think it applies to everyone else besides them. Just like the tired refrain of “all our elected officials suck,” just before that person pulls the lever to reelect the incumbent.

  • paul

    there is a longer interview with stephen on Guys With Pencils, a great podcast resource site featuring animators and comic book artists. He goes into a broader discussion about working for free.

  • Hey, sorry to poke my nose in. Raven is 100% not trolling. I recognised her name on here as I read this, and felt I wanted to throw in my two cents.

    Raven has been a huge influence and inspiration to me. I agree that fanart can be a waste but it can also get you noticed, more than a shallow deviantart favourite. Just pick and choose carefully how often you do fanart, and when you do, make it count.

  • This was extremely inspirational! Preach it brother!