Sunday, April 22, 2012

Pay the Writer

Previously, I expressed my desire to defuse the idea of a 'war on copyright' because it creates an artificial polarity that does not help to further the necessary discussion and debate that needs to take place on this increasingly important issue.

I pointed out that the only people impacted by restrictive and intrusive DRM are legitimate users, who pay an over-inflated price for an inferior product. 

I suggested that these self-defeating practices that are impoverishing the creative industries might be rectified by lowering the price of digital goods (the nominal distribution cost of which is zero) and removing the DRM that more and more closely resembles malware and spyware. 

Digital abundance

In this second article, I would like to backtrack a little and explain where I stand with respect to copyright, and why I think it is so important for creators to receive suitable recompense for the products they create, online or otherwise. 

My understanding of copyright is quite straightforward. I am no lawyer and I have no special knowledge on the subject - please let me know if I have anything wrong if you know more than I - but, as far as I understand it, copyright is a protection against plagiarism that enables creators to earn a living. That is it. I am sure that there are all sorts of complicated legal precepts with which copyright is associated and I know that there are hundreds of different licenses under which works can be copyrighted, but, as far as I am concerned, the notion that creators be paid for the products of their hearts and minds is perfectly fair and reasonable. 

Some argue that the 'digital revolution' and resulting information abundance has made copyright irrelevant, that the concepts of propriety and freedom are antithetical in a digital world. This strikes me as wrong. Propriety is surely an important part of freedom. 

Why it matters

One of the most eloquent and informed writers and speakers on the subject of copyright and digital distribution is Corey Doctorow. He earns what appears to be a very good living as a science fiction writer, technology journalist and public speaker. Having worked as a computer programmer, he knows about the technical realities of modern computing, and, having worked for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, he is very well informed about modern copyright law. I would not dream of contradicting him about any of the finer details of what are called the copyright wars, but which, I think, need a new name. As I am about to outline, I agree with him in almost every respect, but one. Creators should be paid for digital products. 

If you will allow me to paraphrase, Corey Doctorow says that the copyright wars are the front line of a coming war on general-purpose computation. Corporations and control freaks like the idea of turning general-purpose computers - as embodied by the PC (probably running Linux) - into tethered media appliances with limited functionality and spyware as standard, all in the name of security and convenience. Computing devices that match this description are already available on the market - you may well be reading this article on an Apple iPad, probably the most prevalent of this new vanguard. The fundamental point is that DRM is a slippy slope towards more authoritarian forms of control that might limit access to digital information. The solution therefore is for people to reject DRM in all its forms - and I agree with all of that. 

However, removing DRM and weakening copyright does not necessarily improve the likelihood of creators to be paid for their work online. 

The copyright industries

I have do far been very polite and attempted to choose my words very carefully to avoid any sense of prejudice on my part. But I feel like it is time to put my cards on the table and declare where my interests lie.

SOPA and PIPA were notionally promoted by the MPAA to protect the interests of its members - Universal Studios, Paramount Pictures, Sony, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox and The Walt Disney Company - all of which are either subsidiaries of or in themselves transnational corporations. This was an industrial response to what is essentially a creative problem, or to be more specific, a problem for creators. Personally, I could scarcely care less about whether the Big Six survive the digital transition. They have made themselves culturally irrelevant by rigid adherence to a franchise filmmaking formula  aimed almost exclusively at young boys and their families, and they have made themselves financially precarious by only making films with the insanely large budgets. Personally, I think I can live without another Transformers sequel or Spider-Man reboot. 

My interest and my concern is for free-spirited and independently minded creators. The problem of digital distribution is a problem for creators not corporations. Several years ago - maybe 15 or 20 - cyber utopians promised that the Internet would usher in a new era of pluralism and creativity, eliminating boundaries to entry for new writers/musicians/filmmakers/programmers. That was true enough, in the sense that millions of people were given a platform to publish what they wanted - everything from new political treatise to the ever popular cat picture. But, the utopians failed to anticipate the profoundly destabilising impact the Internet would have upon previously stable professions. 

The most readily reported (ha!) is probably journalism. Thousands of jobs on local and national newspapers have been lost because of the advertising dollars that were lost to the Internet. Maybe that was necessary. Maybe those people were not producing anything of any value and the papers in question are now better. I do not know. But I am worried. 

The money that previously went towards paying journalists did not then go towards paying the bloggers who nominally replaced them. Those jobs were lost, not to be replaced, while the vast majority of bloggers (even the good ones) continued to work for nothing, earning money elsewhere. This deprofessionalisation of journalism is starting to occur in other industries - music, films, games. Practically everything that the digital magic wand touches. People in low-cost manufacturing had better watch out because as soon 3D printers go mainstream their jobs will be subject to the same market forces. 

A false economy 

Into this confusing cacophony of amateurs struggling to make a living, working elsewhere and indulging their passion in their spare time, enter Google, with an offer for creators. You can publish your text, music and video on our platforms - Blogger and YouTube - for free, provided that we keep the logs. In return, we will place targeted advertising around your content, earning us dollars and you cents. And, put simply,  it sucks. Creators do all of the work so that the companies that own the servers that host the content can make almost all of the money. I think can do better. I think we need to try to create a business model that puts creators in control of their own works and enables them to earn a living.

Corey Doctorow seems to propose that creators should give their works away for free over the Internet in order to attract sales in other media. He gives away free copies of his e-books and his audiobooks without DRM via his website and seems to make a very good living from physical books sales and his speaking engagements. He says that most author's biggest problem is not theft but obscurity. This may well be true, but there is only one Corey Doctorow. If I have misrepresented his position, I would love to hear from the man himself. 

He may be right. It is not possible to control the distribution of digital content without DRM, but I would like to think it is possible for creators to earn a living in a digital world. Surely it should be easier, in fact. Imagine the possibilities; instead of being impoverished, creators could be empowered. Creative people do not need or want to make millions, only enough to cover their costs, with a little bit extra to support their lifestyle while they work on their next project. Simple. I  think that the best way to achieve this is probably through some form of direct payment. In this context, paying for what one wants to read, watch and listen is a social act, one that enriches society as a whole, as opposed to an elite minority of executives to whom people begrudge payment. 

Exactly what such a system might look like is difficult to determine, but I feel like I am gradually grasping towards an understanding. I may need a bit of help putting the bits and pieces together. 


Post a Comment

<< Home