Pixish Flap

February 13th, 2008

Scott left a comment on my T-shirt contest post, leading me to this discussion on Metafilter about Pixish and spec work. There are some who are saying that Pixish is essentially enabling Web 2.0 slavery practices, cheapening design work, etc. My contest, and specifically my language about how I will use your design on T-shirts and not pay you for it, are cited as one of the examples of how Pixish can be used for evil. As someone says in a comment in that thread “Am I the only one that notes the irony of a musician gleefully admitting they will be using another artist’s work for free?” Oy.

Let me be clear about a couple of things:

1) I wanted to run a contest, not because I wanted to get free design work, but because I wanted to get a design that comes from, and is ratified by the community here on this site. I think it’s fun when fans get involved – it’s the same reason I got people to send in hand claps for “We Will Rock You” and why I held a solo contest for “Shop Vac.” That was fun, right? Right?

2) I have no idea how much it would cost to commission someone to design a shirt for me, certainly it would depend on who it was and what they and I thought their work was worth. But for the record, it’s going to cost me $200 for the iPod, maybe 50 bucks in raw materials for Thing a Week Box Sets, a few bucks for shipping, and probably a few nights sleep while I worry about this whole affair and read a bunch of flamey comments. After all that, I’m not sure I’ll end up with any designs that I want to print (in which case just having had the contest will have been worth it to me). Honestly T-shirts are not a huge profit center for me, in fact, they’re just barely less trouble than they’re worth.

3) Another quote: “[H]oly cow, JoCo is going to get an assload of free design work that is only going to cost him a single iPod, and on top of that, he might use anyone’s submission without them winning anything.” Yes, that is what I said, I can see how that last part is not really fair, and in fact it seems to be against the rules at Pixish: “…publishers have no rights to your work if you don’t win.” So I’ll change that. Only the winning design may be printed.

4) I admit this is not the first time I’ve felt a little weird about getting free work from fans – I’ve got helpers working on this video shoot for comp tickets (or not, if they already had tickets), many fans who have sold merch in exchange for comps and free merch, website work from Kerrin, illustrations from Len, forum moderation from Bry, music videos from all sorts of people, not to mention the free handclaps I tricked the internet into giving me. And I’m not the only one getting free stuff from the internet: Amazon gets book reviews, YouTube gets videos, MySpace gets, erm, error messages. But seriously, where do you draw the line?

Anyway, this whole thing was supposed to be fun, but it’s feeling a lot less fun now that the internet thinks I’m some kind of Web 2.0 plantation owner. I myself am pretty sure this contest is way different from me asking a bunch of designers to do spec work for me, and I’m also not comfortable deciding that Pixish is evil just because it can be used that way. But I am curious to hear what you all think (and folks from the Metafilter thread if they find their way here – I was going to sign up and post a comment, but it costs $5). If I’m wrong, I’ll call the whole thing off. Then I’ll just buy an iPod and smash it in the street, I don’t care, I’m rich.

95 Responses to “Pixish Flap”

  1. Glenn Peters says:

    All I know is that I now want to be paid for all the comments that I’ve posted to this blog. After all, it’s only fair.

  2. James says:

    If I had any talent, I’d give you the designs! I think the contest is fun and spurs me to actually enter a design (Although I could hear the laughing all the way down here in NO) You spelled out everything, o me, its all above board. We are your fans and LOVE the participation! I just wish I could participate in the area in which I’m most talented, Crawfish Omelette anyone?

  3. RuthieA says:

    Mr. Coulton, I stumbled upon your website a couple months ago (right before Christmas), and I found your music really cool. Than, I came back, probably at the end of last month and I found your blog entry in support of the YouTube video of one of your fans. That was the single most awesome thing I have ever seen a musician do. It wasn’t some publicity stunt to get people to think “wow, he’s a great guy, I should buy his CDs.” It was a real expression of care for your fans. That was really cool. Now, I don’t know anything about business or money or graphic design copyright law so all of this stuff just goes over my head but I can honestly tell you that there is no way you will ever be Darth Vader of the slave driver of the internet. You’re a nice guy who wants to do something fun for his fans, that’s all.

  4. Demetrius says:

    “Roman V. Says:”

    What kind of games do you do? I was listening to SkullCrusher Mountain and got obsessed with how he eats and breathes and other science facts… I’m building a (moderately to very, depending on my free time) detailed 3D layout of the “SkullCrusher Mountain Complex”. I have a plug-in that lets me output swf files from the 3D scene. I would love to make it available as an interactive “tour”. But, I don’t do interactivity.

  5. Kurt says:

    I can’t stop imagining a huge robotic JoCo being the slave driver of Chiron Beta Prime.

    Anyway, we’re all in support of you. There are a lot of assholes on the internet that will criticize a good person they know nothing about just because they have a stance on an issue that doesn’t really have anything to do with the case at hand.

    You are extremely loyal to your fans, and because of that, we are all loyal to you. There’s a difference between respect and loyalty versus slavery. I submitted a design, which although it probably won’t be picked, I would be extremely happy to give to you for free. Although if it does win, toss me the iPod, I don’t have one yet for some reason ;)

  6. Roman V says:

    @Demetrius, in an effort to not hijack this topic, I will just say go to my Intertubes and you can email me through there.

    Now then, I am all in favor of collaboration – it levels the playing field, which is great, because you get the best of all worlds.

  7. SirWulf says:

    One bad thing with the Internet is that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, there will be some group of users that are against what you are doing. Ignore those people, they feed off of such negativity.

    What you do is one of those great examples of the good things of the Internet. And this site certainly enforces that. The pictures, videos and fan content all having their own personal idea of your music is really quite refreshing. And winning a contest such as this one would be really cool. All said and done, if someone doesn’t feel comfortable with not making a profit from this, they don’t have to enter.

  8. Jade says:

    Alright, thi is kind of lame. I mean, I want to make a submission for Jonathan almost as a gift for him, y’know? Here it is saying that’s it’s no fair for him to use a design if it is not infact the ‘winner’, but I’m sure ALL the people who submot their designs aren’t going to be in it for any gain (though that iPod or a box set would be awesome), they’re doing it because their fans. And Jonathan has gien so much to us, from Thing-A-Week to all the free downloads he offers AND allowing everyone to use his music, most artists aren’t as awesome as that. Actually, I’m kind of mad that this has him upset, I want him to be happy, and the contest SHOULD be a fun activity for those who choose to participate. I’m going to enter, for sure, more than one design most likely, and if you like any of them Jonathan, feel free to use whenever you please, because it would be my gift to you.

  9. Jade says:

    Uh, ignore all my typos in that earlier message, I look like an idiot.

  10. Tindómiel says:

    Wow, I missed that whole row back there. JoCo, I personally don’t see this as being much different from putting a donation in the tip jar. You’re not some evil, soulless corporation and I’m not an art student trying to get my career off the ground… but if I had gone that path, I’d probably be working on an entry for this contest anyhow, because I’m a fan, and I’m doing this for the hell of it and because you are awesome, and if it wins and makes you some money, that’s even more awesome. Listening to your tunes at work is helping me maintain my sanity, and there’s no way I could repay you for that anyhow.

  11. Bry says:

    I’m posting late enough in the discussion that no one will actually read this, but I see my moniker appears in the blog post. Honestly, moderating the forums is almost always so easy that it shouldn’t really even warrant a mention, but I’m glad to do it and I would never expect to be paid for it.

    I will, however, admit to feeling guilty for taking jobs away from professional forum administrators.

  12. Gary says:

    So you’re the guy who stole my job…..

  13. Michael says:

    I think the contest is a great idea, and as soon as I find the time, I’m going to create as many designs as I’m allowed to! Normally if someone asked me to create T-shirt designs for them, I’d make sure they were paying me well, but in this particular case, I don’t care. I don’t even care about winning the iPod, or if my design is even chosen. I just see this as an opportunity for me to take all the inspiration and positive feelings that your music has given me, and give it back to you the best way I know how.

  14. Daniel says:

    I’ll say the same thing I said on metafilter:

    “if anybody’s an exception to the rule, it’d be Jonathan Coulton: he gives away most of his own work for free online, so if he wants to ask for people to design him t-shirts for free, I say more power to him, he’s earned it.”

    There, now I feel like a suckup, but the whole Pixish flap really wasn’t about you, and I’m sorry people dragged you in there as an example.

  15. [...] one to exploit the masses, our pal Jonathan Coulton is holding a t-shirt design contest. We think our designs are teh [...]

  16. Scott Frazer says:

    I, also, cannot post on MeFi, but if someone who can wants to, this one caught my eye:

    from tkchrist:
    “Anybody here an architect or contractor. Hey how about you all build me three houses each and I will pick witch one I will buy. The best one. No I wont pay you for materials or time. If your good let the market decide. Fuck the rest of you that suck so say I.”

    Um… that’s called a spec house and it happens all the freakin’ time.

  17. People on the Internet will complain about anything.

    Maybe they should consider how much music YOU have given THEM for free.

  18. Jeff Schoby says:


    First of all, the people bitching about the contest just need to get a life. The contest is voluntary. If you’re going to submit a design, you agree to the rules, if you don’t agree to the rules… you don’t submit a design.


    Someone who has some extra expendable income should make a t-shirt for the submitters that says, “I submitted a design for JoCo’s t-shirt design contest and all I got was this lousy t-shirt! (Stupid Internets!)” and donate them to JoCo to send out to the ppl who submit an entry.

    …and then Joco can write “SlAvE” on all of the submitters cheeks and give them new names that are unpronouncable glyphs……

  19. Katie FL says:

    Those folk on MetaFilter should be poked in the eye with the business ends of rabid squirrels.

    Only the winning design may be printed.

    Personally, I’m planning on submitting a design and I’d be honored if I didn’t win and you used it anyway. You’re one of my favorite musicians and it would be wonderful to be able to continue to support you, especially with art rather than money since I’m poor.

    Seriously, I’ll sign a waiver if you want. I just want to be able to point to one of your shirts and say “I fucking designed that.”

  20. Joel says:

    The obvious difference between a plantation and your contest is that the slaves were stuck there and the entrants aren’t. If someone thinks they are getting a square deal, they don’t have to play. But if a fan wants to contribute something to the JoCo Experience they can do it (or not) of their own, uncoerced choice. If I had ancestors who were real slaves, beaten and forced to work against their will, I’d be pretty irked at having their experience compared to people well-off enough to have computers and Internet access and scanners who freely enter an online contest.

    Personally, I’m going to be pointing out this contest to my girlfriend. She loves your music, is an aspiring graphic designer. and could really use a new iPod. Everybody wins!

    (Sorry for probably repeating something that has already been said above, but I wanted to add my opinion to the throng.)

  21. Nikki says:

    What the MeFi ppl are missing, regrettably, is that part of the payoff is that YOU GET FAMOUS FOR MAKING A GREAT JOCO SHIRT. Publicity. FREE PUBLICITY AND AN IPOD. And, fun, and community, and being part of something larger than your big, stupid self. If you are really trying to make a name or get noticed, this is great for you. If you are high-falutin’ and want to be paid $500/hour or something, maybe not so much. Again, no one holding a gun to you pretty little head . . just do it if you want to. Jesus. If you’re going to get torn up about all your ‘wasted time’ then probably this is not for you. Why is that so hard to understand.

  22. Gwynne says:

    Wow, some people will try to take the fun out of everything. I hope you won’t call off the contest (which I’m not participating in because I don’t have a visually artistic bone in my body, but it seems like a very cool idea!) because of some idiots trying to take the fun out of it.

  23. helpful says:

    Just FYI, if you e-mail mathowie, the owner of Metafilter, he will set you up with a free account so you can defend yourself without having to support the site.

  24. Bruce says:

    Man, can I have that to fertilize my garden?

    First, Metafilter folks snark because they don’t have anything better to do. Like so many other people through history, they think this makes them cool. Feh.

    JoCo rocks. Anyone who doesn’t like the contest might just as well go download their music illegally and play with their toes because it’s free.

    Now back to Photoshop.

  25. Jacob says:

    I am working on a design right now which, if it turns out the way I want, will look pretty swanky. I’m hoping it does well in the Pixish contest, but if not I don’t really care.

    Yeah the whole ownership and free artwork issues are kind of rocky, but the alternative to that is no design contest at all, which sucks. I wouldn’t stress over it.

  26. Joseph Devon says:

    I am begging you, *begging* you, to purchase a white linen suit and dress the part of plantation owner for, like, a month or something. And take lots of pictures.
    Go all Colonel on the streets of Brooklyn.
    This has nothing to do with anything, just that image of you as plantation owner is now firmly lodged in my subconscious.
    While I’m making outlandish claims, where’s my acoustic cover of Fat Bottomed Girls to provide a B-side to Baby’s Got Back?

  27. barefootorbust says:

    This is the same complaint I am hearing from music artists as well. In my mind, whether it is visual art or musical art, it is a good way to get your work out there and recognized. In any kind of esoteric business, you have to show what you can do in order for people to want to hire you. With as famous a person as JoCo is now, anyone who put their design in could get a mention and a post by him, telling the world about their work. Who would not want the free publicity? It is hard to get your work out there and noticed. There is WAY too much competition. I would see this as an opportunity, not exploitation. Well, at the very least it’s mutual exploitation. If an artist is worried about JoCo’s motives, they do not have to enter the contest. End of story. Are there people out there trying get freebies? Most likely. That is why instead of griping about what could possibly look like it, do some research, use your brain. You don’t like the contest? Don’t enter.

  28. BlackWolfe says:

    Hey, I’m going to quote your “music” page for a moment:

    Songs that I wrote are licensed Creative Commons by-nc (covers and other stuff I don’t own are not).

    So… it’s okay for you to put out your music for us to listen to on your website (and in a few cases, download and keep) for free, but it’s not okay for people to voluntarily do the same thing when entering your contest?

    I think these people have no perception of who you are as a person and an artist, and they can take a flying leap.

  29. M_pony says:

    the thing to remember is that you have been a ‘success’ on the internet. Anybody Out There who has been at their craft for as long as you have and who has not yet become a success to the same extent might just be gettign jealous.

    Besides, if someone wants to NOT do free design work for you then by all means let them sit there and NOT do it. (I haven’t read the 70-some comments above but i’m pretty sure some of them are similar to mine)

  30. manstraw says:

    I’m a graphic artist type person by trade. I’ve been in this field for 21 years. I think this whole pixish thing is a fine idea and mechanism. It’s up to individuals whether or not they wish to participate. It’s actually a wonderful opportunity for non-professional to gain opportunity, exposure etc. It’s also a wonderful opportunity for a professional to design something because they love the subject matter, which believe me, doesn’t often happen.

    I’m not submitting anything, but only because it’s not really my area of expertise, and I’m hella busy right now.

    And ya know, it’s not like Joco makes us buy everything either. I think he gives quite a lot. And a lot of his fan base likes to give back. That relationship is no one else’s business frankly.

  31. Matt LeClair says:

    Speaking as someone with 20-ish years of experience in the graphic design industry, I know exactly the types who would complain about this. These are college students who are getting good grades in their graphic design classes and have a grossly over-inflated view of their self-worth but no actual professional design experience. And no, the work you did re-doing your high-school website doesn’t count as professional experience.

    The going rate for a design like this is usually 2 copies of the printed t-shirt. If you’re lucky. The Nano and other stuff is more than generous.

    Anyone complaining about spec work or pro-bono work is either an idiot, or has no actual experience as a designer. If you want to reach a point where you’re actually doing cool work you *have* to do spec and pro-bono work.

    Here’s how it works. You graduate from school and start shopping yourself around. You’ve got a portfolio full of all the stuff that got you an A+ on in your classes. For bonus points you’ve thrown in a couple logos you “designed” by following an online tutorial. It’s all shiny and chrome and really, really exciting to someone who’s never seen Photoshop before.You’re showing this off to art directors who are unimpressed because they did the same exercises when they were in college, and your Photoshop tricks are pure cheese to them.

    They want to know what you’ve actually done. As in real work, for real clients. They don’t care where you went to school or what you got for grades.

    Maybe if your work is truly outstanding, they’ll try you out in an entry level position, where the most exiting thing you’ll be designing is classified ads for the local used car dealership.

    The catch is, this entry level work only proves that you’re qualified to do more of the same work. If you want to move beyond this, you’re going to have go do work above and beyond what you’re getting paid for. Very few people are going to pay for work from someone who isn’t a proven commodity, so that means you’ll have to work on spec, or for free.

    The thing is not to be stupid about it. Just because you’re not getting paid for it doesn’t mean your work isn’t valuable. Make sure it’s going to something worthwhile, like a non-profit org you believe in. Or make sure it’s work where you can show off your skills and call all the shots.

    Do enough of this work and you’ll have a portfolio full of real work for real clients, and you can get a better job at a better agency, or get better freelance jobs.

    Honestly, the opportunities to do really creative work that will be published, even for free, are very rare. So, Jonathan, even if you were giving nothing in return besides publishing their work on t-shirts, your contest is still worth entering just to get a portfolio piece. Aspiring artists and designers should look for every opportunity like this.

    As far as Pixish being “evil,” there’s a lot of artists and designers out there who are crap, but successful because their clients don’t know any better, or don’t know how to find anyone else. These are the people who should worry about Pixish. People who are successful because they’re good have nothing to worry about.

  32. Bryan says:

    Pixish is a very good idea spearheaded by a very smart man. As I understand it, it’s primarily for _unknown_ and maybe even _amateur_ photographers/illustrators to build a portfolio and/or reputation. I say leave it up.

  33. Mickey Phoenix says:

    JoCo, ignore them. Ignore them 1000 times. Ignore them with joy in your heart and a spring in your step, echoing the joy and spring that you so freely give to all of us.

    Their absolute nonsense response to your (fun, nifty, how damn cool is that some fan is going to get their t-shirt design printed on an actual official JoCo shirt OMG OMG!!!) contest is utterly pinning my irony-meter.


    Let me say that again:


    You’re about as far from a “web 2.0 plantation owner” as I can imagine an artist getting. Your work brings so much happiness to so many people, and you just put it out there on the web for everyone to enjoy and delight in.

    Thank you for everything you do–for your musical genius, your wonderfully friendly interactions with your fans, the time and heart you put into holding contests like this, the traveling you do to bring your live shows virtually to our doorsteps.

    And please, please, ignore the bitter, angry, selfish people who flame you for offering your fans this nifty opportunity.



  34. G. Bruno says:

    But I am curious to hear what you all think (and folks from the Metafilter thread if they find their way here – I was going to sign up and post a comment, but it costs $5)

    Oh, the irony. The haters need to STFU.

  35. [...] of the things that bugged me about the Pixish/Spec Work debate last week was that Jonathan Coulton sort-of got dragged into the fracas for posting a t-shirt project on the site. He marks out several good points on his blog, but I [...]

  36. Justin Chase says:

    I think it’s perfectly natural for someone who offers his music up on the internet for essentially free to solicit the help of fans for fun and for a nice design. Sure you make money, great, but you’re not Metallica. If you wanted an awesome professional design you’ll probably have to pay for it, with this design contest I’m sure you’ll get what you pay for!

    I think it’s a way to tie your music back in with the fans more, which is what makes you really different from the others. We’re all having fun and it’s supposed to be all about the music right? The tshirts are just occular real estate designed to give fans a public way to declare their affection for you, what better way to do this than to let the fans themselves create it?

    Ignore the nay sayers.

    PS, I nice initials.

  37. Marcy says:

    Why not approach it as a collaboration? The person who wins the contest may not gain much monetarily but he/she will have an awesome resume line (sorry, I don’t know how to do the accents) and might get some notice by the artistic community. There could certainly be positive repercussions for the artist. I’d be thrilled to win and to sign over the copyright to you. If you had the wealth of Paul McCartney, I might feel a little different about it…..ha ha. LOL

  38. Coming late to the party as I am, I would just like to add my voice to the chorus of freely-given not-forced-out-of-me “WTF are they on about?” people.

    Oh, and I brought cookies.

  39. I can’t add much to the dozens of great comments already here, but I wanted to add my voice to the chorus. Two percent of the internet is made up of fuckwads who’d criticize Mother Theresa if they thought it’d get them 15 nanoseconds of attention. Eff ‘em. You’ve got nothing to apologize for.

  40. roscivs says:

    I haven’t read through all the comments yet, but I just have to laugh at the hilarity of someone saying that JoCo, master of the Creative-Commons-give-your-work-away business model, is trying to take advantage of other people’s work for free. Does no one see the irony here?!?!

    If anything, you’re cheapening the value of awesome music, by fucking giving it away to bastards like us who should be paying through the nose for every creative note that comes out of your mouth.

    I say Cheapen Away, JC. I’m enjoying every minute of it.

  41. [...] from a random comment that caught my eye [...]

  42. Down10 says:

    As a poster on that MetaFilter thread, I feel the need to come defend myself from a lot of these baseless insults on this thread. A whole lot of you are very sure that you know what you’re talking about, when you don’t.

    It’s apparent that the great majority of the commenters had either not even bothered to read the MeFi thread or have completely missed the point of the discussion because of they’re JoCo fans who now feel threatened.

    The gripes that were being made was with the Pixish site itself, NOT JONATHAN COULTON, nor his fans or even this particular contest.

    Certainly we all think that fan t-shirt contests like these are fine, but the complaint that I had with Pixish as a whole was that it, for intents and purposes, removes the context of a fan base and just operates as a buffet of cheap/free artwork to whomever makes a request for it. The point was that it removes the community spirit from the work — that it reduces simple requests for artwork designed in good faith into a low-balling eBay for for cheap work without the inherit love or respect that Jon has no doubt earned from his internet presence. Another complaint was that it there didn’t seem to be much protection from artists getting ripped off (like those who rip photos off of Flickr, without paying or crediting the photographers).

    Anyway, please don’t let the nay-sayers get you down, Jon. You’ve already given a lot of great stuff to the Web, and you actually deserve something back. It’s the Pixish site that raises our hackles, not you.

  43. Nim says:

    Whatever. We love ya, JoCo. If we send stuff to you or enter design contests, it’s cause we

  44. GShaw says:

    Hey man it’s an internet rule of thumb that if metafilter is criticizing you then you’re probably doing the right thing

  45. JJ says:

    I was fine with the contest, but I’m creeped out by how many commenters here said, “It’s fine, big corporations do it all the time.”

    That’s really our standard for ethical behavior? Really really?