The one instance in which working for free is justified.

Lou.  In the studio.  Scanned from a print.  

I wrote this because I read John Harrington's post on the perils of working for free and then I read Don Giannatti's rejoinder to John's post and then Don and I went back and forth a few times in semi-private and I thought, "Oh, what the hell?  Let's start at the core and work out from there."  What John is essentially saying is that any time you work for free, regardless of the reason, you are devaluing the whole industry of commercial photography (photography done to make a living....).  What Don is saying, in a nutshell is that John has used too wide a brush to paint his arguments and that there are indeed times when working for free is okay.  

When I pressed Don a bit (maybe I'm a lousy reader) we came to a clarification:  It's okay to work for free if it's something you want to do, you initiate the photo because of your desire and you get tangible benefits as a result of your work.  Maybe it's the access to shoot someone you admire.  But the important thing in Don's point of view boils down to this:  If they (potential client) call YOU then THEY pay.  If you call them and want something from them then maybe YOU pay in some way but you win something too.

Well.  I agree with both of them but then my head started hurting so I laid down on the couch with my dog and took a nap.  When I woke up I decided NOT to think of all the shades of gray entailed in Don's approach or the high contrast blacks and whites of John's post.  I decided to start out easy with one example and then, after I write this, head back to the couch and re-nap.

Here's the one time I'm sure it's okay to do work for free:

I was sitting at a coffee shop on the main drag in front of the University of Texas at Austin, wasting time, thinking about business and wondering how I could do more portraits that were in the style I wanted instead of having to do them in the style that clients of the moment demanded.  I'm pretty sure I was drinking drip coffee because I've never really developed a taste for milky, espresso based coffee drinks.  I know I was at a place called, Quackenbush's Intergalactic Coffee Bar and Bakery because that was one of the early and magnificent Austin independent coffee houses.  They had lots of tables and their cakes and pastries were pretty good too.  I did a lot of reading and thinking there.

Anyway,  just as I was bemoaning my own lack of initiative and spunk, and wishing I could shoot more fun stuff and giving myself the excuse that I just didn't have access to the right people, I looked up and say the most beautiful young woman I had ever seen.  Amazingly beautiful.  Not in a "hot goddess/garage glamor" sort of way but a refined, sophisticated, perfect Audrey Hepburn sort of way.  I remember her light gray corduroy pants, her rough, deep blue sweater with a white shirt collar peeking over the top.  And a look for brilliance in her eyes.

At the time, she was 18 and I was about 36. For a moment I processed all the reasons why a beautiful young girl would not possibly want to entertain an invitation for photography from a stranger twice her age.  Then, because I sensed this was an turning point of some kind for me as an artist,  I wrestled up the courage to walk up to her, hand her my business card and roughly outline what I wanted.  Which was the chance to make a portrait of her.  Nothing else.  

Now, this was before the age of the web, and so there were no ready references I could send her to which would vouch for my skills and intentions.  The best I could do was to provide a reference from a female art director at a well respected magazine.  I'd done my best.  I could only wait.

In a few days I got a phone call from Lou.  She agreed to come to my studio and pose for an image.  A portrait.  Her payment would be whatever prints she would like from the shoot.  From the first moment every frame was something wonderful to me.  We worked together on and off for the entire four years she was going to school in Austin.  I used her commercially for a magazine cover, an industrial video, and a bunch of print projects and all these were paid gigs for both of us but all the images that we did for my portfolio were done for fun and art.

If the assignment was commercial I paid her for her time and usage.  If it was for me I paid her in prints.  When my kid was born she was our first baby sitter.  If everyone were as beautiful, kind, smart and funny I'd be working for free for an awfully long time.  The benefits to me?  She made me look better than I was as an artist.  The images we made together opened doors for me.  The friendship was wonderful.  The memory of making the images is a treasure.  Who would have paid me for all this?

If you feel passionate about photographing someone or something you find a way to do it.  Not everything can or needs to be "monetized".

The rest of the hypothetical scenarios are just that.  Life is short.  You make your own roadmaps.  You decide.

You might want to do some reading about the business..............



Ezequiel Mesquita said...

What a wonderful example to illustrate your point. Beautiful eyes, profound gaze, great gesture. Maybe a work for free, but with a priceless result. Thanks for sharing!

Bruce Walker said...

So much more eloquent than my impoverished reply to John Harrington's post. Beautiful story and image. Important point made.

Thank you, Kirk.

John Krumm said...

Well said. You work for free when it's mostly for yourself. Not many artists work for anything but free.

neopavlik said...

Great write up. This point really touched a nerve for you and Don because you both brought out your "A" games for responses/blogs on this subject.

Sometimes I've got beautiful images in my head and I can't afford NOT to take them.

Bill Beebe said...

Pro bono publico (usually shortened to pro bono) is a phrase derived from Latin meaning "for the public good". (Wikipedia definition)

I am not a photography pro, but I know my own equipment well enough to do yeoman work for a number of non-profits, volunteer organizations and churches in and around my area, that need the equivalent of a volunteer photo-journalist to document events. They don't have the money to hire a "real" pro, especially in these difficult economic times.

Perhaps I'm too much the "bleeding heart liberal" for the tastes of some pure capitalist photographers; so be it. But when I read the comments in the link to John Harrington's post, those comments stiffen my resolve to continue my pro bono work for the people who need it the most but who can afford it the least.

kirk tuck said...

I'm generally in as long as everyone is volunteering. But be careful about bandying the broad concept of "non-profit" about. I belong to a swim club that falls under one part of the non-profit tax laws but we don't necessarily do charitable work, have no poor member. We are constrained not to make a profit beyond reserving for future building and maintenance but.......

There are many organizations that qualify as non-profit under social clubs, etc. which have nothing whatsoever to do with charity, social welfare, higher values, etc. But some of them have no compunction about leaning on their "non-profit status" to ask for freebies that they really don't deserve!!!!!

Don said...

For me it comes down to making images that mean something. I rarely shoot for 'free' but on occasion will shoot for other sorts of remuneration. A value proposition if you will.

It could be my long association with advertising and marketing, but I can see possibilities that present themselves to me. If I can make it work as an advantage to me, then by all means I am in.

Money is one way to measure the value, and the 'long tail' value of something special can have even more. I helped a software company in Florida through a hard time because an ex-partner took them for $20K. Just simply stole it from them.

I knew their story, they were 'our' clients. They had mortgaged their house for the $20K that was promptly spent as the partner went into bankruptcy protection.

I did the work for them. I designed the brochure and got the website up. In a longer time-frame as I was essentially 'working for free' in order to make it right.

That was in late 2001. They are still my client and they have consistently been in the $30K per year billings since 2003.

Yeah. I worked for free.

Or did I?

There are too many photographers who simply stop being passionate and see the camera as only a work tool. I see it as my salvation... it is the only thing that is consistent in my life. The still image. The capture of a moment.

So I choose to do that sometimes based on a whim or an 'idea' that I want to see to fruition. And I work really hard at it... and most of the time it pays off. (Hey, no one's perfect.)

But it is a far cry from doing an ad for a company to use for free. Or an annual report for credit. Bullshit on that... if someone is profiting, and they came to me, I need to profit as well.

But shooting assignment is only one way I see of myself 'working.'

I still don't care about the CL shooters looking for $20 headshots... don't care at all. Not my market. No agency in Phoenix would have their pool go to a $20 headshot guy... none.

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Great points made, and a terrific photograph of a beautiful young lady, like so often.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kirk. Your site here is one of the few I check daily.


Ian said...

You mean to say not all value is convertible into or measurable by money? Heresy, I say, heresy!

In all seriousness, I think I'll stick with my policy of doing what I want for my own reasons. Pinching every penny out of every frame probably isn't a good strategy even if the only reason you're doing photography is the money.

Nick said...

Is Harrington really saying that there should be a bright-line distinction between professionals and amateurs, with every frame from the former taken solely with the goal of renumeration? I think Kirk's lovely story about Lou suggests how bleak and meaningless such an existence would be. Perhaps Mr. Harrington's energy would be better spent on rediscovering his love of photography rather than worrying about being undercut by amateurs, enthusiasts, and wannabes (like me) whose work will likely never hold a candle to his own.

Bill Beebe said...

kirk tuck said...
There are many organizations that qualify as non-profit under social clubs, etc. which have nothing whatsoever to do with charity, social welfare, higher values, etc. But some of them have no compunction about leaning on their "non-profit status" to ask for freebies that they really don't deserve!

Which is an important distinction I totally agree with. Pro bono is an action that must be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis, and must be re-evaluated from time to time to assure it still applies for a given group.

kirk tuck said...

In defense of John Harrington's point of view, If you are compelled to photograph something because you are intrigued by its beauty, elegance or whatever then you shoot whether you make money or not. But I think what John is talking about is the same thing most civilized countries have laws about which protect whole industries from unfair competition which undermines societies by devastating whole sectors.

Let's look at the steel markets. At one point the U.S. was a net exporter of all kinds of steel. Then China decided to get into the business. They had cheap labor. The wanted the market. Their strategy was to undercut the world market by providing steel at a price that was lower than their cost of production. Even with cheap labor. They lost money on every ton of steel they sold and shipped. Eventually they drove U.S. makers out of the majority of markets (the U.S. and Germany still participate in specialty markets). As soon as the U.S. ended those kinds of heavy steel production the Chinese raised their prices to recoup their initial losses. No matter what you personally believe we as a society believe this to be wrong and a number of levels ranging from sovereignty to national security to enlightened self interest. We, as a society, passed laws to prevent other nations from doing this to us. So have most other industrialized countries.
We, as a society, have made it a point not to let people flood our markets with products at prices that are less than the cost to make the products. In one sense it protects jobs but it also protect our capability to make things necessary for national defense----and I'm sure that only the dull among us would argue that economic health is part of our long term national defense policies.
I don't think John is suggesting that we not respond to beauty, not shoot what we feel compelled to shoot. I think he is basically saying that when you make the transition from shooting what you love to shooting for money you enter into an ethical contract with your industry to not flood the market with product that is below the cost of sustainable production.

If you are shooting audio receivers with cut aways to show interior components you are not likely to be doing it for the wonderful glow it gives you as an artist. You are doing it to earn money. And the money you charge should: 1. Be commensurate
with the value of the usage to the client. 2. Sustainably profitable.

kirk tuck said...

Part Two:

At this juncture someone usually brings up the fact that many companies give away free samples and attract new customers and are then highly successful. This is true but they are giving away a tiny, tiny percentage of product, mostly in the consumer space and if you want to use the product in an ongoing way you will need to pay the ongoing price to do so.

John is rightly saying that a career built ENTIRELY on free samples is not a career but a charity that helps the profits and bottom lines of many companies that would otherwise pay the going rate or a rate commensurate with the real value of the service rendered if people weren't giving it away for any one of many wrong reasons.

Part of the rush to give away work is damaged self-esteem. Another part is misguided narcissism. But sometimes people just don't know better.

If I had a friend whose business was in distress and he needed my services to move his business forward but could not afford me I would be glad to deliver my work to him to use in the short term. But with the understanding that I would be paid down the road, when the business recovers. Or that I would take part of the risk in return for some equity value in the business. I don't have any friends who would ask me to do work with no expectation of any compensation.

The bottom line is that we, as a society of laws, have decided that working and putting product into the market at prices below the costs of production is wrong. We have laws against other people doing it to us.

I sure some ultra conservative, supply side zealot will make the case for totally unrestricted trade in every direction but I maintain that most Americans don't want that because it would drive our country into poverty so quickly it would make your head spin. Just ask a real economist (not a talk show host....).
So, in conclusion, shoot whatever the hell you want. But if there should be money on the table don't be a chump. Ask for it and put it in your pocket. If there's no money on the table then it better be for you or your beliefs or because you really, really believe your contribution will move society forward. If you are just shooting it so people think you are cool you might just be destroying our society as we know it.

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Ian said...
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Anonymous said...

Ayn Rand is alive (not really) and well and begging people to work for nothing. And Seth Godin wants you to give it away. What a bunch of doctrinaire horseshit. We need rules and ethics in every field. In fact, they teach ethics in all university business schools. And industry does have ethical standards in every branch. Ian. Wake up.

John Krumm said...

Funny, the clinic my wife works at, a non-profit but large, with a large budget, a couple hundred employees, many of them with 6 digit salaries, just put out a work email asking if anyone knows a hobbyist or professional photographer who could cover certain events for promotional purposes, no fee, but with credit if used (how nice).

I'm sure they didn't send out a similar email looking for writers, or people to clean the carpets, or people with carpentry skills. I guess photographers are special... : )

Bronislaus Janulis said...

Great post, wonderful discussion.

Sometimes one does need to do certain things: http://frame-notes.blogspot.com/2010/02/another-kim-hoffmann.html

At the museum opening where I first saw this painting, talking to one of the artists professors, and a member of the museums acquisitions committee, I was informed that the museum was considering purchasing the painting. I had had an immediate reaction as to how to frame the painting, and offered to donate a frame if the museum did purchase it. I had no thought of compensation, I understood the limited funding available. I did get a reward though; the museum accessioned the frame as sculpture, and the artist has purchased a number of frames since then. The other reward, the creative output.

Bernie said...

I am a 100% free market capitalist and I don't mind how anyone else makes a living as long as it's an honest and voluntary exchange. To be fair to John Harrington I haven't read all of his article but if he is criticising people for not taking a money exchange and saying this is hurting the industry then it sounds like his next step is to attempt to unionise photography and introduce licensing for "professionals". That would not be good for buyers of photography and is a pretty sure route for stagnation for photographers.

Kurt Shoens said...

This is always such a contentious subject. Working backwards. Why be offended if people ask you to work for free? Retaliate by declining their offer. Do people other than photographers get asked to work for free? Sure. Ask my brother the electrician or my friends who are doctors.

Unless Ayn Rand is being used merely as a symbol for all that's wrong, she would not beg people to work for free. You might not agree with her (not my cup of tea either), but working for free isn't what she was about.

Rules and ethics are important of course. I've seen people here and elsewhere make apparent equivalence between dumb business practice and horrific acts of violence. Surely you don't mean that?

If photographers allow themselves to be exploited and work for little or nothing, that is not (in my view) an unethical act. It is a foolish act. It's not predatory pricing or price-fixing. Those are practices designed to raise prices in the long term, not lower them. One of the tests that courts make is the ultimate effect on prices. Referring to anti-trust laws with respect to photographers working for free is off the mark. Now if Walmart sweats you all out of the business, that's a different matter.

Damage done by the stupid ... the damage to the financial system "done by the stupid" was more like people working in what they thought was their individual self-interest but not to our collective self-interest. OK I see the analogy.

But, photographers seem to worry that those working for free will teach photography buyers that photographs aren't worth all that much. Don't you think the buyers are smarter than that? Besides, photographs in general are not worth much. There are more than 10 billion online for your perusal on flickr and photobucket to prove it. But the right photo, of the right subject, with the desired exclusivity/rights, reliably delivered ... THAT you can charge a premium for.

Kirk says some conservative Ayn Rand type is going to suggest that pricing be a free-for-all. I don't want that label, but isn't pricing for photography a free-for-all already?

If your livelihood is really imperiled by unsustainable business practices held by others and you have no influence over them except asking them nicely to refrain, your situation is bleak. You can't even reliably communicate with them. They probably don't read books about good business practices nor follow good blogs.

I have no evidence one way or the other, but I doubt those people have significant impact and I doubt their impact is larger now than in the past (say 5 years ago). I'd like to see something objective rather than anecdotal.

kirk tuck said...

I've read Atlas Shrugged but did not mention Ayn Rand in my arguments. That was done by another poster. No, the majority of art buyers in small and medium businesses are not smarter than that.

My original essay says very clearly that you should work for free when you work for yourself. My argument in the comments is a look at what I thought John Harrington's point of view might be.

I think my argument that ethics are and should be a part of every business practice is sound and easily defensible. Capitalism, left to it's own unchecked devices is at least as predatory and destructive as the worst aspect of communism.

And you do know that photographers who are members of the ASMP are constrained from collusion or price fixing with other photographers. I guess we can't have it either way.

Don't get me started on doctors, lawyers, therapists and others who've gamed the system to control access and pricing models. Talk about some big loopholes. I'm still smarting from the results of trying to open my own plastic surgery operation in my garage.....talk about regulation and control.....

Finally, Kurt, I too would like to see some objective analysis of the impact of free photography on the industry. If you can find some, please let me know and I'll run it.

Don said...

Geez, I had a total post here and google screwed up. Basically I took Harrington's post apart. I may redo it soon. I think it is full of strawman arguments and inflammatory apocalyptic fantasies.

Don said...

This whole thing started with Harrington's terrible post. He didn't talk about shooting annual reports or advertising or brochures or POP's or collateral or design work... he talked about people for who we shouldn't even be paying any attention to. And he does it to make an apocalyptic, horrendously scary point... but he uses straw men arguments to prove something that is not a problem.

I just want to make sure that everyone understands what the bruhaha is that Harrington is decrying.

1. A concert shooter who does photography for 'bands' for free.
- Does that mean they are shooting Lyle Lovett on stage for the CD insert for free, or hanging around 'rave' halls shooting crap bands for MySpace. Seriously... who cares?

2. Headshots for a young actress.
- That's called 'testing' folks. Happens every day and is simply a part of the business we are in - especially if we are in fashion, beauty or celebrity work.

3. Family photos of the neighbors for free.
- So do we think this guy is any good at it? Why would we assume he was good at taking family photographs (which I find to be very hard to do)? Why is it always doom and gloom. Do you think that he is scouting locations, taking a couple of Profotos and batteries out and doing killer family portraits? Pleeeezzz..

4. A guy shoots his company picnic...
- this is a jobs killer? Really? Do we have any idea if they had ever hired a photographer before, or was this astonishing, huge gig something that cost a photographer a chunk of change? I am leaning toward "they couldn't pay me enough" myself.

5. Getting 'jobs' from word of mouth shooting?
- Is that a bad thing? He says they are jobs... not free jobs, jobs. So I don't get why that is bad.

6. Facebook headshots.
- Really. Facebook headshots. I got nothin' here. Facebook headshots? Gimmee a break.

7. The IT guy shooting nights.
- Yeah... that is when all the big ad shoots happen... after work. Sure... or maybe on Sunday mornings, when all the really big productions happen... I am not getting this. At all. Is the guy shooting bottom feeder stuff for local 'scene' magazines? Maybe... that's cool.

8. Kid in school.
- Yeah, they are a real threat. I doubt McCann Erickson is gonna see their lame-ass school portfolio. I have seen hundreds of them and will stick by my 'lame ass' statement. So what kind of work are they gonna get? From who?

9. Photo credit.
- I am on board with that 100%. Shooting for credit is stupid.

10. Graduate.
- Harrington thinks that kids who graduated from a photo department at an American university is ready for commercial work? Come on... they are no more ready than the first day they went in for the most part. Even Art Center grads spend a year or more amassing work and assisting to learn all they DIDN'T learn in school. This one made my blood boil.

11. The pixels are free guy. Strawman.
- Doesn't exist for the most part... and definitely doesn't exist for any kind of extended time. Rent, food, gear, autos, insurance, front money... and about 200 other things are NOT Free. It is unsustainable.

12. Strawman... again.
- Who is this mythical person that can travel the world doing wonderful photography for free? Seriously... think about that... who could do that? And if you can find a rich, young shooter full of zeal... he still would have to deliver amazing shots. And the person with the attitude that Harrington describes is NEVER going to commit to what it takes to deliver.

Kirk and others are talking about real, honest gigs... and of course to do those gigs one would have to be prepared to do them, and be able to produce that work every single day. I don't think that any of the people above are a threat to us.

And after spending a few hours on the phone today, with designers and AD's I know, I can say with some certainty that these folks are not making a dent in real, working commercial photography.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Don - excellent points. You did not miss the forest for the trees!

Benjamin Reed said...

I shoot for free all the time, and I'm the IT guy that Harrington mentions. I shoot for friends and family and friends of friends who can't afford a professional (DeWitt county, IL has a problem called poverty).

I do get upset when people ask me to shoot for them for free when I KNOW they can pay. I won't.

Bottom line is IT IS my choice to shoot for free when I do. If Harrington, or any one else needs the jobs I'm taking from the, perhaps they should consider talking to me, consider another profession, consider lowering prices to meet demand...options are plentiful.

Raianerastha said...

John Harrington's article strikes me as being full of straw man arguments as well. He forgets one prime aspect of any "artistic" business, that has always been there and always will be-pay your dues.

Blaming those willing to do an occasional job for free as the culprits in a declining marketplace is somewhat nearsighted. Photographers are struggling for business not because some newcomer decides to do an event for the local theatre group for free, but because THE MARKETPLACE IS CHANGING.

The days of being able to say "Yes, Mr Client, I am so good at my job that you will pay my fee because you won't find the results I give anywhere else" are over. (Of note, more than one photographer of that high a profile has filed for bankruptcy of late).

Perhaps it might be better to blame the Big Stock Agencies for trying to continue the old royalty fee system far beyond viability.

Better to blame the internet and electronic reproduction methods for reducing demands for images which rate double truck or huge POS print requirements.

Or blame websites and blogs for reducing the need for printed periodicals.

Or youtube, websites in general and even retailers for shifting the needs from still to video to an ever increasing degree.

Heck, you could even blame the camera manufacturers for producing $700 kits that allow people to produce passable photos with little or no skill or knowledge about lighting, exposure, color balance etc.

Don't forget all those art directors who turn to microstock for images to use at a fraction of the price the regular stock agencies charge.

Blame some of the people who decide that Stan in shipping takes "pretty good" photos with his Superzoom, so why hire a pro to take photos of the production lines for the corporate report.

Blame the people who don't know why a true pro produces photos that are better than the wannabes, but they don't care enough to pay for the difference.

Most of all, photographers who are understandably concerned about loss of business should look to themselves and how they market their business. Rather than blame the trend, buck it in a positive way.

I do agree that it can be a problem for genuine working pros in two regards. One, you have part time "wannabes" who work pro bono when they should charge because they just want to say they did a "pro job". But you also have some people who work for free out of fear. They are afraid that if they say "Sorry, but I will have to be paid for that job" the client will turn elsewhere. Instead, they should say "Ok, let me show you why it is worth it to you to pay for the job I will do."

PS: My son just asked me to do his senior portraits for him so he can save the money for other expenses. Am I supposed to say "Sorry son, I don't want to have a negative impact on the industry"?

kirk tuck said...

No, the days of saying, "I command high rates because you can't get this somewhere else" are not over. Because singular vision is something they can't get anywhere else. A camera without an artist is like an IT guy without a computer......

And it takes an artist to make art. Everything else is just pale imitation.

Art teaches us what it is to be human. We all need that whether we acknowledge it or not.

Raianerastha said...

Kirk, I understand those days aren't completely over. I should have clarified. What I meant was that someone with a "pro level" kit and above average understanding of photographic technique can no longer make that claim. I remember that years ago, someone who knew how to use his Nikon F system to good effect could definitely get jobs that "Uncle Stan" and his Pentax K1000 couldn't match. But technology combined with economic constraints and just plain lowered expectations with many people have narrowed that field.

Just look at the forums on certain websites, full of people playing at being pro level photogrphers (based on their ownership of or demand for "pro level gear") who produce run of the mill, unimaginative images. Oh yes, they are razor sharp, perfectly exposed and color exact images. But they are unoriginal "postcard shots" nonetheless.

Ergo, the person who really does have an original vision can command higher prices. Which is my point, really. Mr Harrington implies that photographers are losing business because someone is doing "postcard shots" for free. Ok, maybe. But that's ALWAYS been the case. The pros with truly original vision-or who know how to best capture particular subjects in a way that no one else can quite match-will continue to command attention from clients willing to pay.

So, there it is...the argument in my mind, at least to a greater degree than it seems some "camera technicians" (pro or otherwise) are willing to concede, is that the technician without artistry has no one to blame for losing business except himself. Meanwhile the original artists with technique may start out doing some free jobs, but eventually will command the prices they deserve.

It's called free market economy, which I think Mr Harrington overlooks as a factor in how he expressed his opinion. Frustrating? Yes, but that's how things work nowadays.

kirk tuck said...


The one point I must disagree on is the idea that people have been giving it away forever. In the days of film there were costs to every step and those were impediments to giving away stuff for free. Digital liberated people to give it away for free.

To your last point, we hardly live in a free market economy. We do for commodities but most of the profitable professional services quadrants have long relied on legislation, licensing and price fixing in order to generate continued and unchallenged profits.

State boards fix rates for utilities and other services. Banks collude through the fed to fix interest rates on their products. I'm not saying photography should be like that only that we hardly live in a free market economy.

I think what John really meant was that it's stupid to give away your stuff to strangers for nothing really in return.