Monday, January 25, 2010

Creative Distribution, Some Thoughts On

In the last few months, the decade-old (ish) debate about art, technology, intellectual theft, and pirates has resurfaced. You're probably all familiar with the music industry's "zomg u has downloaded teh musics without paying we're gonna die" campaigns and Hollywood's "zomg u has posted teh videos as torrents!" panic. Some of you, if you're as plugged into the online publishing and writing community as I am, will have come across the newest version of this—book piracy.

I'm not going to give you a link for that, because a simple Google search will probably give you more than you need to know. To summarize:

  • There are people who either scan print books and post the pdfs for free, or who upload e-book files for free downloads
  • These free copies aren't doing any authors any favours, as authors survive on royalties from bought books, and don't get anything from pirated versions.
  • Pirated books do allow more people to read the books, but that comes at a pretty big cost to publishing.
In addition, the "zomg music pirates!" feeling is mirrored in the "zomg e-books will change publishing!" stance that a lot of publishing folk seem to be taking sides on. Some say that's good. Some say that's bad. Some say that just is. (I'm going to give a brief nod to art theft, in which trolls/spammers repost artwork they claim is theirs. The online art community gets pretty irate about this, too.)

The similarities have gotten me thinking: What if everything creative was public? What if there was no such thing as intellectual property and creative works were viewed as the property of the society, rather than a single person or group? This is one possible path the piracy issues could lead us towards, though not, I think, the path we're currently on.

What would a future with free creative works look like? I'd imagine it would look similar to older, defunct societies. The Middle Ages comes to mind. 

I'm not a medievalist, but I have taken a course or two, and I never once got the impression that X advance in manuscript illumination belonged only to Brother John, or that Beowulf could only be performed by Olaf the Dane, or that Chaucer would've Had Words with anyone who wanted to copy his books (Okay, so maybe not him. Chaucer was snarky.). Similar ideas about property and sharing pop up in the Classical world, and probably go all the way back to the Stone Age. Thog would probably have taught Gog how to properly paint bison on a cave ceiling rather than kick Gog out of the cave for trying to repeat his painting.

The problem with taking these historical periods as a model is that John and Olaf didn't exactly get paid for their troubles. John was creating art for God. Olaf was composing poetry for room and board. Chaucer was essentially a diplomat with a hobby. However, all their jobs were prestige positions, as were Homer's and Thog's. Their societies had all advanced enough that they could support artists. They no longer needed every able body to collect or create food. 

A society with artists* creating free, society-owned work would need to give the artists either a living wage (not minimum wage, but something they could use to both live and buy supplies for their work), or would need to pay a decent commission for each piece. Given that "free" in the future will almost certainly mean "online" and "digital", the commission may not be feasible, but a state-paid income certainly would be. A regular income would achieve a couple goals—it would free artists from The Day Job and allow them more time to create, and it would free them from financial worry. (I don't think anyone can really function properly under stress.) Freeing artists to be artists would mean more creative output per capita, and if all that output was instantly accessible world-wide, that would mean a heckuva lot of everyday exposure to creativity.

Of course, to keep the income, an artist would need to prove they've been earning it, through an exhibit, show, music release, or so many articles, short stories, scripts, or words in a novel. If every artist had more unlimited free time, the necessary output probably wouldn't be hard to achieve.

I know this is a rosy future. I know that doing away with royalties and copyright probably won't happen. I know, from personal experience, that the urge to claim ownership of one's work is pretty strong. I'm not necessarily advocating for or against the ideas I've just put forward**. 

That said, though … what if the ideas in this post were realized? What if the world's artists created for the sake of creation and shared for the sake of bettering the world, without thought to who owned what they created?*** What would a society exposed to that much creativity look like and work like? What if this was an alien society and not our own?

*meaning artists, actors, musicians, and writers
**mostly because I don't know enough about the issues at hand
***see also: Creative Commons

1 comment:

canageek said...

Something you should read is the mission statement of http://www.baen.com/library/ which is a large publisher discussing the issue. They conclude it is best to give books away for free a period after they come out, especially the first book in a series.