Taylor Swift, Photographers, and "working for nothing"


If you don’t already know, here’s a quick run down of what’s happening with the whole Taylor Swift/Apple/Indie Artists debacle: Last month, Apple released its streaming service and offered a three month trial period to users for free. During the trial period, they weren’t planning on paying the artists whose music was streamed by the service. Last week, Taylor Swift published an open letter to Apple in which she basically claimed that Apple was wronging artists by not paying them for three months. Two days ago, Jason Sheldon produced a contract that he had to sign to photograph one of Swift’s older tours, and because the contract allows for his work to be used indefinitely without compensating him for each use, he basically calls Swift a hypocrite. Swift’s spokesman said that Sheldon is misrepresenting the contract. A few hours ago, Joel Goodman, another freelance photographer, leaked a contract for the 1989 tour that contains even stricter rules.

This debacle raises two philosophical questions:

  1. Is Swift a hypocrite?

  2. Have musicians like Swift or photographers like Sheldon even given a compelling argument for why they’ve been treated wrongly in the first place?

I do think Swift is a hypocrite, but I don’t think that it really matters because neither Swift nor Sheldon has given us a good reason to think that artists are being wronged by companies like Apple and Firefly Entertainment. Let me try to convince you to see things my way.

Is Swift a hypocrite?

Like I said, I think the answer to this question is “yes.” Here’s why: Swift claims that “it is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing” and the contract that Swift has her photographers sign asks photographers to “work for nothing” in the same way that Apple’s plan to refrain from paying artists during the 3 month trail period does.

We can see this if we pay closer attention to Swift’s central claim in her letter to Apple. Again, that claim is that its “unfair to ask someone to work for nothing.” What does Swift mean by this? She can’t mean that artists are literally doing work in exchange for nothing. The artists will receive some form of payment eventually. Even Swift admits this when she says, “3 months is a long time to wait to get paid.” She also can’t mean that artists are literally working to produce the music that people are streaming during the three months and getting paid nothing for it. Its not like they’ve got Swift and other artists locked in a room somewhere and they’re live streaming their music into our Apple earbuds.

I don’t mean to nitpick here. I really do think its important that we get clear on what Swift means when she says its “unfair to ask someone to work for nothing.” If we don’t know what she means, we can’t know if she’s a hypocrite, nor can we know whether she’s made a plausible moral case that Apple did something wrong in the first place. Humor me a little more as we try to figure out exactly what she might be saying.

One thing that we have to pay attention to if we’re going to understand Swift’s claim is that Swift and other musicians produce art and that companies want to monetize that art. That’s obvious, I know, but its important. Swift and other musicians, in this case, are not offering a service that Apple wants to monetize. Rather, they have already put the work in to produce the art that Apple wants to monetize.

With this in mind, I think we can see that Swift didn’t choose the best words to express her claim. _1989 _has already been produced and released. There’s no more “work” to be done with it. If Swift gets 1$ from Apple’s streaming of _1989, it will _no longer be true, strictly speaking, that she worked for nothing.

I think Swift’s complaint has to have something to do with the fact that someone is benefiting from an artist’s work while the artist herself is not receiving a share in that benefit. If that’s true, then maybe she should have rephrased her claim as follows:

Its unfair for anyone to be benefit from the creation of a valuable good if the creator of that good does not herself receive a portion of that benefit.

But even if Swift put her claim this way, it still wouldn’t be obvious that Apple did something wrong. After all, if Apple makes 100 million this year because of their streaming service and if every artist gets paid 1 dollar, it will still be true that each artist received a portion of the benefit that Apple has gained from the valuable goods (i.e., songs) that the artists have produced.

Maybe Swift should have been even more specific and said something like this:

For any occasion on which anyone benefits from the creation of a valuable good, fairness demands that the creator of that good herself receive a portion of the benefit that was gained on that occasion.

If Swift put her claim this way, we could easily see that Apple, according to her claim, was doing something that’s unfair. The three month trial period during which Apple would not pay musicians was an occasion on which they were benefiting from the creation of valuable goods without sharing a portion of that benefit with the creators of those goods.

Now that we finally have a better idea of what Swift meant when she said, “it is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing,” we can see pretty straightforwardly, that Swift is a hypocrite, or, at the very least, that she has hired people who are performing actions that are morally equivalent to Apple’s attempt to skip out on paying artist royalties for 3 months.  Photographers produce a valuable good. Firefly Media’s contract states that Swift can benefit from the creation of that good on many occasions after the good has been produced without compensating the photographer who created that good.

Did Swift or Sheldon give a good argument for why they’re being wronged?

I think the answer to this question is, “no.” The claim that Swift seem to be making is far from obvious. Again, recall that the claim is this:

For any occasion on which anyone benefits from the creation of a valuable good, fairness demands that the creator of that good herself receive a portion of the benefit that was gained on that occasion.

Philosophers like to come up with names for claims. It might seem weird, but its also helpful. I’ll call this claim, “Swift’s claim.” We can see that Swift’s claim is unlikely to be true by noting that if we assume that it is true, we’ll be forced to condemn some actions that are probably perfectly okay morally speaking.

For example, suppose I found a company. Suppose further that I make millions of dollars from that company. Finally, suppose that I get tired of running the company and since I’m rich, I decide to sell my entire company and retire.

If Swift’s claim is true, then whomever I sell my company to would be morally obligated to compensate me for any money they make off of the company that I created. That seems false though. If I agreed to a contract that stated that the new owner of my company would be 100% entitled to its profits, then it seems crazy to think that I’d somehow be entitled to a portion of future profits after the sale.  Swift’s claim, then, is probably false.

Obviously, there’s a big difference between a millionaire selling his company and a struggling artist trying to earn a decent living from their art career, but here’s the thing: Swift’s claim, as I’ve stated it above applied equally to both of them. Its a very strong claim because of the phrase “For any occasion on which anyone…

Although Swift’s claim is too strong, there might be another claim that more plausibly supports an argument against Apple and Swift. In Sheldon’s response to Swift, we see the beginnings of such a claim:

You say in your letter to Apple that “Three months is a long time to go unpaid”. But you seem happy to restrict us to being paid once, and never being able to earn from our work ever again, while granting you the rights to exploit our work for your benefit for all eternity.

How are you any different to Apple? If you don’t like being exploited, that’s great — make a huge statement about it, and you’ll have my support. But how about making sure you’re not guilty of the very same tactic before you have a pop at someone else?

Photographers need to earn a living as well.

In this excerpt, Sheldon seems to complain that he only agrees to contracts that allow companies to “exploit [his] work for [their] benefit for all eternity” because he just needs to earn a living. He seems to suggest, in other words, that because of his relative lack of wealth and power, he is unfairly forced into a contract that he would not otherwise agree to.


Sheldon’s claim is more plausible, but I don’t have the time right now to examine it or really say whether it holds up in this particular instance, and in any case, I doubt you have the desire to read more of my ramblings on this subject, so let me conclude with this: it seems like the moral issue in this debacle is more fundamentally about morality in a world with huge disparities in wealth and power than it is about getting compensated for work. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Swift/Apple piece of this debacle itself was little more than a power play masquerading as a sincere moral plea met with heartfelt repentance.


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