What Well-Funded, For-Profit Company Wants Translators To “Donate” Their Work?

Back in 2006, Pulitzer-nominated Nicholas Carr* coined the phrase digital sharecropper, and points out this practice — where the labor of many is aggregated for the profit of a few — may be reaching cynical new heights.

It seems Coursera — a for-profit learning company with over $85 million in venture funding — is asking translators to work for free:

Coursera, the fast-growing, for-profit online education company, has become, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “an investor’s pet.” It has pulled in $85 million in venture funding over the last two years, attracting big-name investors like Kleiner Perkins and the World Bank’s VC arm, LearnCapital.

Those millions aren’t enough, apparently, to pay translators to help the company extend its online courses, or MOOCs, into foreign markets. Instead, Coursera is taking the digital sharecropping route. It announced this week that it is recruiting skilled translators and asking them to donate their work to the company for free.

Inevitably, the insult is followed by the injury; Coursera forces the working-for-free translators to sign a “work for hire” contract, transferring all rights to the company.


What do the translators get? Presumably a hearty pat on the back and access to a community of people similarly willing to labor for free.

(UPDATE: via Twitter, Eric Garland points out that translation typically pays $0.14 – 0.30 PER WORD, depending on the difficulty, liability and language involved.)

Every writer can tell you a “so-and-so asked me to work for free” story. The concept isn’t new, but it is on the rise even among ginormous companies who should know better (witness Eric Garland famously calling out The Atlantic for pretending they aren’t trying to milk veteran professional writers for free work).

People ask. As writers whose work has value, we’re free to answer any way we want.

We’re also free to point out that it’s morally wonky for a for-profit organization to bolster its profits on the backs of free labor. Even on our backwater writing blogs.

Keep writing, Tom Chandler.

(*Carr was nominated for The Shallows, which delves into what the Internet’s fire hose of information might be doing to our brains.)