Legalities 32: Should artists let large profitable companies use their art online for free? Guest author Craig Frazier shares an open letter to Google

As reported recently in the New York Times, Google has invited prominent illustrators to contribute work to be featured as options for Google’s customers to use as skins on Google’s new Web browser, Google Chrome, in exchange for the “opportunity have their work shown to millions” (in other words, Google would not pay for the artwork). This has outraged many illustrators, including one of my clients, Craig Frazier, who was asked by Google to participate and declined. He has graciously allowed me to share his letter to Google in response to an email discussion he had with a Google executive. Google had cited Oprah and Keith Haring as analogous scenarios.

June 16, 2009

Dear Google,

Thanks for your reply to my email—which I will take as an invitation to further engage in the debate. As the NY Times article and several postings on have indicated—this is a very important issue to the creative community—in this case designers and illustrators. The irony is that Google has been in existence a mere fraction of the lifespan of the illustration profession and the practice of many of the illustrators weighing in on this. Yet, Google seems to be taking the position that it came up with some unique way to further illustrator’s careers without really knowing the first thing about them.

Let me first address your analogies because they perfectly demonstrate the flaw in Google’s logic. Asking to get paid for designing a custom browser for Google is not remotely analogous to asking for remuneration for promoting your book on Oprah. Oprah is a forum specifically to bring light to current events and products—particularly literature. Being on her show is a precise moment in time and is specifically designed to pimp an author’s book. Illustrating Google’s Chrome browser for others to use in perpetuity is an assignment no different than illustrating the cover of Time or a full-page ad. It requires original work to be produced for a specific purpose. The privilege of being in front of Google’s audience couldn’t be further from reasonable payment.

Keith Haring’s choice to promote himself by painting subway walls is also in no way parallel to this scenario. First, he was a fine artist and his means of exposure was disruptive by design and very much in keeping with his graffiti style. He was also not doing work designed to promote a new product for a specific corporation that would profit from his exercise. He picked the venue—and he solely garnered the reward and suffered the consequences.

Google has the idea of promotion and ‘exposure’ very wrong and has defined it to suit their purpose. First, promotion for any illustrator or visual artist involves showing your best work in the best possible light. A half-inch strip around a browser couldn’t be further from showcasing the work of most illustrators. We typically work on the center of the page! It is very doubtful that this forum promotes the actual strengths of the artists. Fact is, this is a very difficult assignment.

Google also has the concept of ‘exposure’ very wrong. Every great publication or media venue is ultimately exposure for the artist. But exposure as currency for work delivered is simply not done. The cover of Time, or a postage stamp, or a movie poster are all seen by millions—but that very same exposure for the artist is the same exposure that makes their work purposeful to that client. A good cover sells magazines and a good poster creates ticket sales. Just the same, a poor cover diminishes sales and likewise tarnishes the reputation of the artist. We tend to view large viewer ship of our work as a heightened responsibility to do our best work. We expect to be paid—and are paid—for bringing a creative service to a company or product that in turn increases that company’s commercial opportunities. Designing a custom skin for the Google Chrome web browser is exactly that. Exposure is a zero-sum game and Google knows it.

Our fees are calculated on two metrics. Time and exposure. The more people intended to influence—the greater the fee. The longer the duration—the greater the fee. Google is arguing the inverse. More viewers and indeterminate timeframe—no compensation to the artist. Yet as those metrics increase, Google’s revenue opportunity does as well. That, simply is not right.

If Google truly believes that compensation through exposure is a valid currency, then what sustains the talent pool? If every corporation worked this way, no one would pay our fees to keep us in business. Free promotion only works if someone else is willing to pay honest money down the line. The Chrome project presents Google in the light that they are ‘above’ the established system of commerce and passes the responsibility of paying the talent onto others. The very idea of trading on that system but not participating smacks of hypocrisy and exploitation.

The question for all of us is why doesn’t Google pay for the services? It isn’t because they cannot afford it. The message to the creative community is not a good one. Unfortunately, it is the very community that creates the visual content that makes the Internet a valid and prosperous business enterprise. Google, of all companies, should seek a much higher ground with our community.

I hope that you and your colleagues will step back and recognize that you may be throwing out the baby with the bath water by taking a righteous position on this one. This comes across as nothing but hubris on behalf of one of America’s wealthiest companies—in one of the roughest times in our economy. It is an astonishing position given our county’s current exposure of corporate greed. I admire a lot about Google and wish this side had not shown itself to me. I, and others, would love to be involved with Google and their innovations—but in a forum that respects and fairly rewards talent and services.

I welcome you to enter further into this debate. Please share this letter. I will be more than happy to continue the discussion online or in person.

Craig Frazier

Member Society of Illustrators
Board Member (ICON) Illustration Conference 2005

© 2009 Craig Frazier.


You are invited to submit questions for upcoming Legalities columns. Please send your questions to

Legalities is a service mark of Linda Joy Kattwinkel. ©2007 Linda Joy Kattwinkel. All Rights Reserved. The information in this column is provided to help you become familiar with legal issues that may affect graphic artists. Legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and nothing provided here should be used as a substitute for advice of legal counsel. Linda Joy Kattwinkel is an attorney, painter and former graphic artist/illustrator. She practices intellectual property law, arts law and mediation for artists in San Francisco. She can be reached at 415-882-3200 or

See the index of previous columns for more answers to your questions.