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Artistic and Ethical Disaster: CafePress Removes Designer and Product Discretion. Take Control of Your Destiny. Get Off the Marketplace!

The last time that CafePress made changes to its terms of service, it did so openly. The t-shirt, button and bumper sticker printer did not make that mistake again, making a quiet but fundamental change today that may nevertheless push more people away from doing business there.

Corporate, Capitalist CafePress
CafePress is a “print on demand” corporation. The “print on demand” portion of CafePress’ identity involves the printing of images made by graphic designers onto a variety of products — including bumper stickers, buttons and shirts — and the shipping of images to customers. CafePress gets a cut of the profit and graphic designers get a cut of the profit as well. The “corporation” portion of CafePress’ identity means that CafePress is an inhuman entity with inhuman priorities. Those priorities are a maximization of CafePress profit and a minimization of expense. Pay to the people who make shirts for CafePress is an expense. Pay to the people who design graphics for CafePress is an expense. It is the priority of CafePress to minimize those expenses.

Those who have railed against CafePress as somehow “communist” for cutting pay to designers fail to understand that such a dynamic is central to corporate capitalism, and those who defend CafePress for following its capitalist priorities fail to understand that “capitalist” does not necessarily equal “good.” Impersonal enterprises can often hurt people very personally. But reacting to abusive impersonal enterprises as if they were people — crying, yelling, cajoling — won’t work, even if the slights of enterprises like CafePress touch you in the deepest parts of your humanity. Those reactions won’t work because CafePress is inhuman. The most effective course we can take as humans is first to take notice of what is being to done to us by inhuman entities and then to decide what we are willing to do about it.

CafePress Takes Away Choice Over Product Placement
In a quiet e-mail message sent out at 4 o’clock this morning, CafePress corporate representatives sent their “best regards” with a message that as blandly as possible announced another change in terms. “The changes to the Seller Services are minor and will allow us to help you,” declared CafePress. A read of the text of the changes reveals that their nature is neither “minor” nor “helpful.”

Change Number One: If designers make their designs available in the CafePress “Marketplace” (the corporation’s product search engine), then CafePress reserves the right to make those designs available for sale on any product, at CafePress’ sole discretion. Before today, designers had the right to decide on what products their graphic designs would be sold.

There are two reasons this change matters. The first has to do with the ethics of production. As a profit-maximizing corporation, CafePress has found it in its interest to minimize the money it spends for the products it prints on. CafePress has found products tend to be cheaper when shipped internationally, even from as far as Asia, than when they’re produced and shipped within the United States of America. It’s not because shipping huge crates across a vast ocean on oily barges costs less. Rather, it’s because factories in third world countries get away with paying their workers less than the cost of living. Many CafePress designers, who are not corporations but human beings, feel ethically uncomfortable with the idea of participating in this exploitation of human labor for profit. As a result they exercised control over their designs, restricting their product offerings within CafePress to the set of products made in the USA. CafePress just took away that ethical choice for designers who work through the Marketplace.

CafePress Takes Control, Revising Your Work
A second reason the change in control over design placement on products matters is that it reduces artistic discretion. Even if you couldn’t care less whether someone in a third-world factory is paid pennies for sewing a shirt on which CafePress makes more than $10 of profit, you might care about where your precious art expresses itself. You toiled away for five days and nights on that airbrushed painting, and maybe for reasons of pride or integrity of vision (or something more complex-sounding in French) you don’t want to see it stuck on thong underwear or a doggie t-shirt. Before today, you got to decide which products matched your artistic vision. Today, CafePress took away that artistic discretion for designers working through the Marketplace.

That’s not the only change in artistic discretion imposed by CafePress today.

Change Number Two: If designers make their designs available in the CafePress “Marketplace” (again, the corporation’s product search engine), then CafePress reserves the right to alter those designs as it sees fit, including making graphic changes to the design, changing the colors of the design, and altering the placement of the design on a product to match CafePress managers’ sense of appropriateness. If you work through the CafePress Marketplace, control over the design is no longer yours. It’s theirs.

What’s the word for a circumstance in which an entity possesses and has control over something? “Ownership.” CafePress is moving away from a model in which designers and printers were partners, each with their own domain of work and control, with printers owning machines and supplies and designers owning images, their placement and their pricing. CafePress already took control over images’ pricing earlier this year; today CafePress took control over images’ placement, color and basic structure.

CafePress is taking control and assuming ownership of domains designers have exercised control over for the past ten years. If you are a designer with CafePress, what can you do about it?

Option 1: Continue to work with CafePress in the Marketplace and cede control and ownership of your work. Hope that CafePress won’t do anything more drastic in the future.

Option 2: Continue to work with CafePress, but withdraw from the Marketplace. By doing so, you exempt yourself from losing choice over prices, products and images. You may continue to use a CafePress “shop” (your own area that you promote outside CafePress’ Marketplace Search engine, like our shop) and control what happens there. CafePress won’t link in to your shop itself any more, so you have to help yourself in the promotion department.

Option 3: Start seeing other printers. Many people have moved to Zazzle as an alternative printer of bumper stickers and buttons, especially since Zazzle began allowing graphic designers to restrict the range of products their images appear upon. I am particularly enamored of Skreened, a print-on-demand t-shirt operation based out of Columbus, Ohio that specializes in sweatshop-free t-shirts and gives shirt designers an extra-big 11×17 canvas on which to work.

It is my opinion that if too many people follow the course of option #1, conditions for working with CafePress will not get better. Indeed, I think they’ll get worse, as CafePress administration takes stock of what people are willing to bear. But if enough people choose either option #2 or option #3 (or both), CafePress administration will learn that such overt grabs at control and profit are counterproductive, and then will retreat, perhaps even into a corporate simulation of human compassion.

We here at Irregular Times have exercised options #2 and #3, withdrawing from the CafePress Marketplace and pursuing relationships with other printers.

If you work with CafePress, what are you going to do?

One thought on “Artistic and Ethical Disaster: CafePress Removes Designer and Product Discretion. Take Control of Your Destiny. Get Off the Marketplace!”

  1. Daniel Poeira says:

    I had already taken my designs out of that website a few weeks ago because of the prices. I think I had it coming.

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