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The True Cost Of “Free” Professional Services

Leah Miller has a good take on Unsplash, a website where photographers donate photos which can subsequently be used without royalty or attribution:

They bill themselves as “Beautiful FREE photos for Everyone”. That means anyone, including businesses can go to their website and download unlimited amounts of photography (and some of it is very good) work without attribution or payment to the individual(s) who created them. Furthermore there is no requirement for Model or Property Releases which guarantees that the photographer and end user are likely to get sued. Don’t believe me? Do a search on that website of any popular brand you can think of…sportswear, etc. You will not see a single RELEASE for those images in sight. Large companies like Apple will sue the pants off you should they get wind of their products/logos etc. being used commercially. That “EXPOSURE” you got in return for the image of a Nike sneaker you posted (and was subsequently downloaded and used commercially) won’t be worth an ounce of mercy when that first lawyer letter hits your mailbox.

When you purchase a “creative” person’s professional’s services, be they from a photographer, programmer, editor, writer, or marketer, you’re paying for more than the finished thing that the professional is providing. You’re paying for the suite of skills and talents and knowledge that surround the finished product, and some of those skills and talents and knowledge are largely invisible to the client. And that’s fine: it’s what’s being paid for. But if you get something for free or at a deeply discounted price it’s important to know that all those hidden extras that you don’t see when you hire a professional can quickly become your problem. Sometime those problems are just a massive pain in the ass when they arise. But at their worst they can be a terrible drag on whatever you have going on in your life and career, and can be poison to either your hobby, your side gig, or your professional career.

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So even in the worst cases, free products don’t usually end too badly. Well, unless you’re a user, or one of the alternatives that gets crushed along the way. But everyone who funds and builds a free product usually comes out of it pretty well, especially if they don’t care what happens to their users.

Free is so prevalent in our industry not because everyone’s irresponsible, but because it works.

In other industries, this is called predatory pricing, and many forms of it are illegal because they’re so destructive to healthy businesses and the welfare of an economy. But the tech industry is far less regulated, younger, and faster-moving than most industries. We celebrate our ability to do things that are illegal or economically infeasible in other markets with productive-sounding words like “disruption”.

* Marco Arment, “Free Works