Photo: Darin White finds it baffling that entrepreneurs who survive by selling product often expect him to provide free copies of his photos.

Would you ask the chef at your favourite restaurant to come to your house and cook for free?

Would you expect a furniture store to give you a couch at no charge in exchange for “exposure”?

I’ve been thinking about these questions more and more lately, as I hear about incidents of people in our community feeling entitled to use other people’s work without asking or paying.

I’m talking about the casual appropriation of people’s photographs, words or other creative output for your own use. In other words, copying and pasting something from someone’s blog or Facebook page without seeking permission or offering to compensate the person who made it.

I raise this issue here and now because I think it’s related to a larger problem that many of us in the tech community like to think we’re helping to solve – namely, a lack of private-sector support for arts and culture in Waterloo Region.

The issue was discussed just this week in Kitchener at a forum for candidates in the Oct. 27 municipal election. In a Waterloo Region Record article about the forum, reporter Chris Herhalt tells us that Waterloo Region falls short of other Canadian cities on average pay for artists, employment in arts and culture and municipal support for arts groups.

I’ve been hearing about this problem since I moved back here in 2010 after eight years away. People in the tech community are particularly insistent that a vibrant cultural scene is crucial to attracting talented people to live and work here. And yet, at the same time, I’ve continued to hear about people – including some in the tech community – asking content creators to work for free, or worse, simply using their work without asking.

It’s a puzzling phenomenon for many reasons, the simplest of which is this: If you want something another person has created, you must think it’s valuable. So why would you feel entitled to have it for free?

My friend and sometime-collaborator on photography projects, Darin White, runs into this all the time.

Darin recently left a full-time paid gig at BlackBerry to devote more time to what he loves to do most – tell visual stories of interesting people and events related to the region’s arts, culture, maker and tech scenes. He posts these stories to his blog, makebright.com.

Even though it’s free for you and me to visit makebright, which carries no advertising, it’s not difficult to recognize its value. As the only person documenting these stories in most cases, Darin works hard (yes, photography is hard work) to give profile and publicity to countless worthy causes and creative people in our midst.

As a result, we all get to know our community more fully, for the lively and interesting place that it is, and to feel a bit guilty for not getting off the couch more often to experience these things in person.

“If I wasn’t here, that story wouldn’t exist. I like that; that’s my thing,” Darin told me. “It’s like a digital footprint I’ve left behind.”

But even though he doesn’t charge for access to his site, “the stuff on makebright is not free,” he said. “It’s a conscious investment I make in the community.”

Still, that doesn’t stop people from assuming they can help themselves to Darin’s photos (almost all of which are watermarked with a copyright notice, though copyright is automatic and needs no notice), or from asking him to hand over digital images for free.

“You get the sense that they’re slightly offended when you tell them there’s a price on this stuff,” Darin said. “The most baffling thing in the whole equation is that it’s people who are running businesses themselves” who usually assume he’ll provide a free copy, he said, before asking rhetorically, “You work in a software company – does your company give away software for free?”

Even other creative people, who seek to earn money from their own work, balk at paying Darin for his, a situation he characterizes as artists “killing ourselves.”

Maybe that’s part of the problem – so many people are giving their work away for free that it’s no longer considered valuable, recorded music being the most obvious example.

“I think we have to internally recognize the value of our own stuff,” Darin said. “If you charge nothing, you’re implying your work isn’t worth anything.”

The question is, why do creators do this? I suggest the answer is that they assume the rest of us simply won’t pay.

Why we won’t pay for a photograph, when we’ll happily pay for a restaurant meal or a couch, is another question entirely. But as long as this is the case, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for a truly great local arts and culture scene to develop.

Darin is a bit more positive in his outlook, but even he hedged.

“I’m an optimist, so I think this is going to get sorted out,” he said, before adding, “maybe not in my lifetime.”

Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo looks at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.

About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy
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Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.