While I normally don't condone working for free, or asking others to work for free, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about anything.
I was recently approached by a company to do some illustration work. I won't mention the company by name, because their intentions seemed honest. However, they were asking for an all-too-common type of business deal. I would provide them with artwork without being paid upfront, and I would get paid x number of dollars per unit sold bearing my design. Although normally I would not accept such a job, this one had a twist. There was a charitable aspect involved. Not only would selling the merchandise benefit the company and myself, but every sale also directly benefitted needy people in my city. After a bit of thought and a bit of chatting with the owner of the company, I agreed to waive my normal flat rates and partake in the project.
Enter the Artist Agreement - a common contract signed between designer and client, usually protecting the rights of both parties. Here is where things went sour. This particular agreement really benefitted the company and not so much the artist. Without getting too into the details, clauses in the contract involved forfeiting my rights to the artwork, giving others rights to change my art and giving permission for the art to be used beyond the scope of the project... all for no garuntee of ever being paid. Had the art been commissioned for a set amount of money, it would be a different story... But as the offer stood, I could not sign the agreement in good faith and backed out of the deal.
The whole exchange was a disappointment for me. For one, I'm sure I would have benefitted from the potential exposure that might have been. But more so, I was disappointed to see a seemingly well-intentioned company putting themselves in a position that takes advantage of inexperienced artists. To most of the folks they work with, I'm sure the agreement sounded just fine. Maybe these people weren't professional designers or didn't run their own design studios and simply didn't understand contracts... but none-the-less, gaining the rights to people's artwork for no pay is considered taking advantage in my book.
Perhaps though, the biggest disappointment of all is knowing that although this company was going about hiring artists the wrong way, they are certainly not the worst offenders.