How Free Can It Be?
Business + Economy

How Free Can It Be?

Unpaid labor is growing in popularity — why not find some for this article?

Caitlin Curran/The Fiscal Times

I'm supposed to turn in this piece today, but I would much rather go home and watch hours of really bad reality TV. Just writing that last sentence wiped me out (I mean, just look at the journalism burnout rate). I need help. I need a break. My unpaid research assistant can write the next paragraph.

The 'free culture' movement encompasses a variety of different sub-movements, including the Free Software movement and online communities such as Wikipedia. Students for Free Culture, a group that promotes the movement on over 40 college campuses nationwide, claims the movement was founded in the spring of 2004 at Swarthmore College. The movement is often associated with college students and young people due to violations of copyright protection, including file-sharing, which have proliferated rapidly in the last few years.

Not bad, eh? I, too, was impressed by Young Assistant's ability to churn that out for a total sum of $0. I should give him a raise someday. Or not.

There are currently hundreds of thousands of unpaid interns out there, and even as the economy slowly, painfully begins to recover, their numbers are growing. Free labor has migrated beyond college internships, infiltrating almost every creative industry, as well as a handful of more menial ones. I could probably get Young Assistant to work for weeks or even months at no pay, and when he finally gets fed up and quits? There are plenty of others waiting in line to take his place. Sure, maybe it's unfair, and I felt a momentary tinge of guilt, but he's gaining exposure and experience, right? Isn't it just basic supply and demand?

Why not have three free laborers toiling away
on an article I don't really feel like writing?
They want the experience, I want the help.

I found this discounted assistant by posting an ad on Craigslist, which now charges $25 per job posting in select cities, but still lets you post to the "Gigs" section for free. An hour after I posted a vague ad, asking for free labor on an article for The Fiscal Times, saying "there may or may not be opportunities for paid work in the future," (which is generally the case anytime you meet a person that's, well, employed) the responses from eager, young whippersnappers begin trickling in.

"I am a 3L at NYU Law and member of the NYU Journal of Law and Business. I have also written columns on such topics as executive compensation and the financial crisis for the Law School Magazine. I would be very interested in helping with your article."

"I am interested in helping you in writing an article for The Fiscal Times. I am an economics and chemistry major, conducting research in both fields. I just finished doing historical French and Swiss franc research for a book and I have done chemical engineering research at MIT. I have also written management theory articles and other pieces for business sites. I look forward to hearing from you."

I called each of them, reminding them that they would be working for free. Zilch. Nada. Did they understand? Yes, said the first one I called, she had done this before. Then came the moment when I had to explain my premise: She would be working for free, on an article about people working for free. I assumed I would get some hang-ups.

"The article that I'm doing is about people working for free."


"This includes unpaid interns, aggregated content writers, research assistants …"


"That's the article."


"What I would need you to do is help me with some of the reporting, the research, and even some of the writing. Interested?"

"Well, it's an interesting topic, and as I would be doing work for free, I can certainly relate to it." We both laugh awkwardly.

I "hire" her on the spot, as well as the next two applicants (until — for reasons I don't know — Craigslist flagged and removed the ad, while leaving up many other equally sketchy requests for free labor). Regardless, my mission was accomplished: I had my army of assistants. Why not have three free laborers toiling away on an article I don't really feel like writing? They want the experience, I want the help. They had me at "To Whom it May Concern."

This concept of experience and exposure for hours of unpaid work embodies the same basic logic that many internship coordinators use, as well as the thousands of other players in this growing "free culture movement." There is little investment in bringing on a small unpaid workforce, except the limited time it takes to find and train them. With fewer graduates finding entry-level jobs, and most entry-level jobs requiring past internships — or these jobs simply being replaced by interns all together — intern recruiters are finding more, and higher quality, interns for little to nothing in return. The practice even extends beyond the "glamour" industries like film, TV, photography, journalism, sports and fashion, and is also happening in more traditionally blue-collar ones like the restaurant and agriculture industries.

"Because young people are so desperate to get a good start on a job and this is seen as a way to do that, and employers in a hypercompetitive environment are looking for ways to get by for less, and get work done for cheap or nothing, it's an increasing phenomenon," says Cynthia Estlund, a labor law professor at the New York University School of Law. "People are choosing to ignore the law."

The Murky Legality of the Unpaid Internship
This past April, The New York Times questioned the legality of unpaid internships, launching a heated debate on the issue. They found that half of college graduates have held at least one internship, a 33 percent increase since 1992, and of the hundreds of thousands of interns, one-fourth to one-half are unpaid. Often, if there is an exchange of money, it's in the opposite direction — as in, the intern pays. The Huffington Post auctioned off an internship last year for $13,000; this year an internship at Vogue went for $42,500. For years in Washington, D.C., students have been traveling to participate in unpaid internship programs that include housing, but pay a hefty price: anywhere from $7,000 to $9,000 for the summer.

In 1947, the Supreme Court established six criteria that allow a for-profit organization to have unpaid interns (nonprofits and government entities don't have the same requirements) — one being that the intern cannot displace a regular paid worker, another being that the labor must be for the benefit of the intern, not the employer. But most interns will tell you this is almost never entirely the case. One unpaid intern at a popular women's magazine was asked to wash the office dishes at the end of the day. Others talk about picking up dry cleaning for their superiors and sorting mail; one unpaid production assistant working on a film set was asked to pick up dog poop.

"Young people are not feeling appreciated because they know they could be doing more within these internships, but they have to continually show gratefulness for this privilege of working for free," says University of Washington sociologist Gina Neff, who is writing a book on the political economy of unpaid internships. "In some industries the only way you can be taken seriously for paid employment is to be willing to do unpaid work. The thing that concerns me is who is paying for the unpaid work? Are we pushing onto families the burden of getting young people ready to go into the workplace?"

If the employer is getting something for free
that's depriving other people of traditionally paid work,
it could be falling short of a societal standard.

The New York Times article caused The Atlantic to question the practice and start paying its interns. "Through the lens of Saturday's New York Times story, we found ourselves revisiting the concept," wrote a spokesperson for Atlantic Media. "We decided to pay, retroactively, both last year's interns and our current class." An intern there at the time said there was definitely "a marked uptick in morale among interns after it was announced we were being paid." Although a number of other companies followed suit, and recently labor departments in a handful of states have been cracking down on the practice, relatively few are fighting against these market forces. More often, people are embracing free work, and setting up business models where all the contributors donate their time and services., launching next month, will ask both new and established writers to publish and share their work on the site gratis, ideally building an audience and enough page views to appeal to advertisers down the road. Sites like BrooWaha and many others are trying to capitalize on citizen journalism, and of course behemoths like The Huffington Post also publish blogs written for free.

Last year, Google, which reported quarterly profits of $6.67 billion at the end of 2009, asked dozens of professional illustrators to provide art skins for the Chrome browser for free. "While we don't typically offer monetary compensation for these projects," the company said in a statement, "we believe these projects provide a unique and exciting opportunity for artists to display their work in front of millions of people." Two unpaid magazine interns even started Work For Free magazine as a satirical reaction to the trend, with the tagline: "In these hard times, the best you can do is work for free." They, of course, don't pay their writers or editors.

"People do it because they want to share the things that they've created," says Nick Bilton, author of I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works, "but they also do it because it drives traffic back to wherever it is that they have other products." This growing phenomenon of unpaid "independent contractor" contributions is puzzling labor law experts over how to approach the practice legally. On one hand, as independent workers not under the control of anyone, they're not covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which includes the minimum wage requirement. On the other hand, if the employer is getting something for free that's depriving other people of traditionally paid work, it could be falling short of a societal standard. "The default principle is when you work, you should get paid, and you should get paid at least minimum wage," says NYU's Estlund.

I email Young Assistant #2 before I leave for a weeklong vacation. My deadline is getting close. "Can you transcribe this interview by tomorrow?"

"I can have this done. Don't worry about it," he replies within a few minutes.

Yes, people, this is the life. I'll be hiking and camping in the mountains while my three diligent worker bees do more interviews, transcriptions and research. I debate having them update my Twitter status, but reconsider. Perhaps that's pushing it. But where's the line? What distinguishes free labor as exploitation, and free labor as volunteering or donating services? It's not an easy question to answer.

Collaboration, or Exploitation?
"There's always been volunteer work which is done for free, but the question is at what point are employers using the volunteer label to get labor for free that they ought to be paying for?" asks Estlund. "If people are volunteering in hopes of getting a job at the same place, that may tilt things in the direction of no, you're actually working here; you should be getting paid. With interns, there are similar questions."

But Dan Tapscott, co-author of Wikinomics and MacroWikinomics, has a different view. "There is a big difference between an unpaid internship when a company is bringing on labor and not paying them, and a self-organizing community like Wikipedia, where the purpose of the community is for volunteers to come together and create something. These are polar opposites. One is a wonderful thing. The other is a form of exploitation."

In his book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of WIRED, discusses the growth of a "gift economy," which was once thought to have only existed at festivals like Burning Man and places like Berkeley, Calif. "There's no advertising involved. There's no hidden subsidy. There's no hidden transfer of wealth. It's entirely free labor consumed with no expectation, payment, or monetary exchange," he says when discussing the book on "I think between open source and the blogosphere and social networks and user-generated content and Wikipedia, we are seeing the creation of a gift economy, which is on a massive scale, and really doesn't exist in conventional economics at all."

So, was my use of assistants on this article exploitation? Or were we working together on a collective project for the good of journalism?

My first hire, Young Assistant #1, became fed up with the project and asked not to be identified in the article. "I thought this might be a networking opportunity and I could get some jobs from that," she said, when I had Young Assistant #2 interview her — for free, of course, about working for free, in an article about working for free. "But it's been a waste of time. Blaire hasn't offered to introduce me to any of her editors or anything like that." Whoops. (Though, in my defense, she never asked.)

Young Assistant #3 dropped out midway through the project, citing "limited Internet and computer access," but said he'd be interested in helping me in the future. Young Assistant #2 was by far the most enthusiastic and helpful of the bunch. He put in 20 hours, conducted four interviews, and even spent a weekend covering a Wikipedia event in New York City for me while I vegged out on the couch. He said he wasn't hoping to get a job or anything out of his labor, but did it because after taking a few journalism classes as an undergrad, was "curious to learn what someone like you does."

Does this mean that I exploited Young Assistant #1, who didn't feel like she benefited from the project, but not Young Assistant #2, who seemed to do it for a desire to learn and contribute to a larger project? Couldn't I just continue to post the ad, until I found a whole army of Young Assistant #2s, thus staffing my "business" with highly qualified, unpaid laborers happily donating their services to me?

The gift economy will only continue to grow, but the question is, how much do we want it to? It will take a combination of legal regulation and individual action to stop its forces. Estlund says that as far as policy goes, establishing a minimum rate may be needed, because the end result of the gift economy is fewer jobs. "The employer is getting something for free that it should have to pay for," says Estlund. "It's also depriving other people of work."

I'd like to thank Dennis Chanay and Ben Fischberg, who both contributed greatly to this project (Employers: hire these guys.) The Fiscal Times normally does pay interns and independent contractors. For this project, after the assistants completed all tasks under the agreement they would be working for free, TFT offered them minimum wage. But that's another story.