Olympus Ascending: Thoughts on the Free Redistribution of Digital Content

Posted 11 Aug 2000 at 06:21 UTC by hiller Share This

This essay explores the ways in which artists can make money on digital content (music recordings, home video, electronic texts, etc.) which is freely redistributable. I feel that the bandwidth explosion will make this a crucially important issue relatively soon (within the next 20 years or so), in that it will become impossible to do business any other way.

My reasons for feeling this way are explained in great detail in another essay. Even if you disagree with me there, though, the question of "How could I make money by giving my art away?" is still very much worth answering. If you do agree with me, it's also worth speculating on what will happen to the present media industries when the content they sell becomes free.

Before suggesting some answers to the first question, I'd like to point out that's not really all that important a question. People routinely produce art of all kinds without any expectation of making money off of it; they're motivated simply by love for what they do. Eben Moglen covers the issue extraordinarily well in Anarchism Triumphant: Free Software and the Death of Copyright; quoting him fleetingly, "we have the Magic Flute even though Mozart knew very well he wouldn't be paid."

I'd also briefly like to state my opinion that offering content freely constitutes a morally healthier way of doing things. (I'm an active GNU developer, after all, so it shouldn't surprise you too much to hear me saying something like that.) In his GNU philosophy writings, Richard Stallman argues that the impulse to share is fundamentally good; something that should be encouraged where possible, not denigrated. I agree with this thinking, and I feel it applies no less to other forms of published digital information than it does to software.

Approaches to Fundraising

Soliciting Donations

This approach is fairly straightforward. The artist simply includes a note with her media which reads, "If you like what I do, here's how to send me money, which will help me continue to provide you with art." This will be most effective for artists who manage to amass a large following, and by no means completely ineffective for everyone else.

(As a side note, the viability of this method will be become stronger with the advent of a ubiquitous digital cash system. With such system in place, consumers would be able to deliver small or not-so-small bounties to their favorite artists with, say, a few mouse clicks 1. RMS has pointed this out in some of his brief writings on the subject.)

Another way of approaching this is for the artist to sell copies of her work even though it is available elsewhere at no cost. Another suggestion, floated by Bruce Schneier, is the Performer's Protocol, in which an artist will release her next song, film segment, etc. when, say, another $50,000 has been donated to her Performer's Protocol Account. In fact, Stephen King is employing the Performer's Protocol to decide whether he will release the third part of his new e-book. Both of these approaches are fundamentally twists on soliciting donations, though, at least from the consumer's perspective.

Corporate Sponsorship/Advertising

This approach is also fairly straightforward. In exchange for support, a corporation will have its name somehow attached to some amount of the artist's work.

This model, of course, is precisely the status quo for commercial television and radio. The network produces a program, and the costs of doing so are defrayed by companies who, in exchange, get to air ads during the commercial breaks. Corporate sponsorship is not unique to these media, however; bands go on tours sponsored by the likes of Pepsi and The Gap, public television programs briefly thank the Mobil corporation for their grants in support of public TV, companies pay bounties to have their products placed in movies -- either to have them appear in the frame, mentioned in dialogue, or both -- and so on.

Making content freely redistributable doesn't fundamentally change any of this. The only wrinkle is that redistributable content can easily be edited midway through the redistribution process. This greatly reduces sponsors' ability to hawk their products during commercial breaks, for commercials would likely be stripped out of the programs in short order. It may even put a cap on the obviousness with which products can be placed in the programming proper, as fans might make it a point of pride to edit out product placement if it's particularly fulsome.

Non-Corporate Sponsorship

Sponsorship money may come from organizations that exist expressly to support the arts. These organizations may be governmental or non-governmental.

Such sponsorship is similar to corporate sponsorship, the main difference being that it places far fewer new requirements on the artist. (Mostly, the artist will have to act in a manner that is politically acceptable to the donating body.)

Seeding the Market

In some situations, if an artist's work is freely available, it will help spread word of who he is, what he does, and what his ideas are. This seeds the market for products and services the artist can offer which can't be encoded and sent down a wire.

For example, a jazz band that makes its money by playing at bars, weddings, and bar mitzvahs can reach a larger base of potential patrons if their music is out there. A respected indepedent film director may find herself such a household name that her non-shooting schedule is overfull with speaking engagements, and that she's amassing quite a lot in speaker's fees. And so on.

Selling Accessories

Even if an artist's digital content is available at nearly no charge, the same will not be true of physical, salable objects associated with her work. This approach is best exemplified by, say, a band that gives away its music at the same web site where it sells official T-shirts.

Ancillary Businesses

Thus far, I haven't described much of a niche where the digital publishing industries can fit in this new paradigm; instead, I've concentrated on what artists can do to make money. There are, however, distinct niches where publishers will still be able to make a living by adding value to the products they redistribute.

For example, an on-line business could maintain a large archive of music, television, and movie files, each of which have been checked for quality, completeness, fidelity, etc. Consumers who'd like to access the archive would be charged a small fee for doing so -- a few cents for each file downloaded, or a few dollars per month for a subscription that gives them unlimited downloads. Moreover, it seems likely that such businesses would give back to the artists; it only seems fair, and consumers would probably prefer to do business with companies that meet their notions of fairness. Popular artists could also make money by inking promotional deals with these distributors. In fact, emusic.com is already selling a similar and entirely legal subscription service for mp3 music, though the pricing schemes and comprehensiveness of their library are perhaps subideal.

As another example, publishers (or the artists themselves) might be able to offer premium subscription services to their fans that guarantee them the earliest-possible access to new releases. The viability of such a service, though, depends on consumer impatience exceeding the content's ability to propagate itself throughout the network. Thus, premium subscriptions make sense only if this propagation speed is rather slow, or if the demand to obtain the item -- immediately -- is very high (e.g., The Next Harry Potter Book, the most recent installment of a very popular half-hour situation comedy that's being released intermittently, etc.)

The Courses of Industry

As I mentioned above, I feel that all published digital content will, by necessity, become free. If we take this as a given, how will it change the industries that presently produce and publish digital content? Bear in mind that I do not by any means have insider's knowledge of any of these industries, but here are some predictions:

The Studio Film Industry

At present, films make money by way of a many-tiered distribution system which serves to extract every last bit of value from the public that it can. Here's an outline of how this all works for a big-studio U.S. film (not strictly in order):

First, the film goes on its main theatrical run in the U.S. Then it's released to the shrinking numbers of second- and third-run theaters in the U.S. It's released on pay-per-view systems. It's released on home video. (If the studios feel that a film isn't worth the cost of putting through a theatrical run, it will be released directly to the home market without hitting theaters at all.) Its broadcast rights are sold to T.V. stations; first, premium movie stations, then non-premium. The film is also released stage-by-stage in foreign countries, the exact timetable tending to vary by country or region. Often, the foreign release schedule lags behind the U.S. schedule. In fact, a movie just hitting the theaters in some part of the world will often already be available on video back in the U.S.

On occassion, the studio can make some money aside from that by licensing merchandising rights (action figures, plush dolls, plastic lightsabers, Spaceballs the Flame Thrower, etc.) This is especially true of kids' movies.

A shift to freely redistributable content sweeps away the in-home tiers of this system. In contrast, there's good reason to believe that the theatrical run will continue to exist. The video and sound of a theater can't really be reproduced in most people's homes, and the social usefulness of movie-going isn't likely to fade soon. There is a risk of a high-quality bootleg making it to home video while the film is still in theaters, but this is a manageable risk. All in all, the studio can maintain control of theatrical releases. Video releases, in contrast, will become free.

This would all be fine were it not for the fact that relatively few films cover their costs just from their theatrical runs. I predict that studios will deal with this in the following ways:

  • Theatrical runs will lengthen. One corollary to this is that second- and third-run theaters will again assume greater importance.

  • Product placement and other forms of corporate sponsorship will increase.

  • Studios will continue to make movies that allow them to sell merchandising.

  • Theatrical re-releases of older movies at strategic moments will become more common.

Even so, when all is said and done, the disappearance of home video and TV's revenue streams will shrink the feature film market overall. With less money to chase, fewer big-studio movies will be produced.

Nonetheless, as is customary now, these films will, some time after their theatrical run, be released for in-home consumption. Although there'll no longer be any direct money to be made by doing so, it'll be worth it because of exposure. Timely home-video release will lead to further career opportunities for directors, actors, screenwriters, cinematographers, etc.; as such, they will likely make it a condition of their employment. It will provide publicity and prestige for the studio itself, and may help them hype upcoming releases. Importantly, it provides greater publicity for the film's corporate sponsors.

This shift in the mode of production will also constrain studios' foreign release plans. It won't require studios to do simultaneous premieres worldwide, but it will push overseas release earlier, before home-video release. (Home video release will, by necessity, automatically become a worldwide affair. Even language barriers won't be too much of an impediment, as it'll be fairly easy for fans to add subtitles to the home-video release and then redistribute.)

Independent Film

Independent filmmakers face a slightly different situation than the big studios. First off, the profit motive often is not their primary concern, or at least not to the same degree. A corollary to this is that they tend to depend less on the distribution pipeline discussed above. Also, quite importantly, they're in a better situation to solicit donations from individuals and foundations than the big studios, which from the consumer's point of view are clearly part of the Establishment. Conversely, they can expect less from the corporate world; low-key sponsorships or promotional deals will still be within the realm of possibility, but if this becomes too great, it will quickly lead to the artist being labeled a sell-out.

There's fairly good reason to believe that the shift will be a substantial improvement for the filmmaker -- it'll greatly improve exposure of his works and increase the audience from which to solicit funds. We may see a tendency for independent film to be digitally released to the public at large without making a theatrical run at all. Or that a film will first be released in that fashion to test the waters, and then be released in theaters if audience demand calls for it.

The Television Industry

As described earlier in this essay, television will lose the main way its costs are now defrayed: the commercial break.

Recorded (as opposed to live) programming will suffer this problem with the plainest obviousness. In an environment where such programming will be freely redistributable, the broadcast model largely ceases to make sense as its delivery method. People much prefer to watch programming when it is convenient for them to watch it -- perhaps when it first is made available, perhaps a few hours later, or perhaps years later -- provided the access to the content is convenient as well. Free redistribution of digital content makes that possible. It's worth restating that this also makes it impossible to stick in commercial breaks, as they'll just get stripped out.

The commercial break will be similarly weakened for live programming. The reason is more subtle, though. Perhaps you're familiar with technologies like TiVo. Or perhaps not. At any rate, one of the most intriguing possibilities stemming from these new-fangled TV technologies is the ability to cut commercials out of programming on the fly. Want to watch the 6 o'clock news without commercials? Just set your box to start silently recording at 6 and then start watching at 6:12. It'll excise the expected 12 minutes of commercial out of the program on the fly. (Perhaps it'll require you to hit a fast-forward button to do this, which is how TiVo functions, or perhaps it could do this automatically.)

Of course, there are still some live programs that viewers will want to watch exactly as they unfold: New Year's Eve programming, for example, or sports. Especially sports. (It's safe to ignore the fact that a present-day TV viewer isn't precisely seeing anything live. It takes time for the signal to reach her house, and there may be another delay first in which assiduous censors bleep out any curses the microphones happen to pick up. This is still pretty close to live.) In such situations, the commercial break may well survive.

How will other programming get paid for? The answer's simple: pretty much the same way that films will, minus the theatrical run. Commercial programming will run on product placement and other forms of sponsorship; non-commercial programming will run on donations from individuals, foundations, and low-key corporate sponsorship (much as public television does now). In fact, between the loss of the commercial break and greater flexibility of program length, many of the distinctions between movies and the medium that television has evolved into will cease to be so sharp.

That said, just as radio didn't go away when its importance diminished, broadcast television won't go away either. Instead, like radio, it will become a niche player -- useful for things like sports broadcasts, or reaching markets where the newer technology hasn't yet achieved dominance, or whatever.

The Recording Industry

The financial incentive for record companies to assemble and mass-market musical acts will be greatly reduced, as there will no longer be any money to be made by selling albums.

This does not mean that less music will be recorded. The difference is that most recording will be done by individuals and groups looking for exposure, as this will be the key to soliciting donations, selling tie-in products, or offering other services; i.e., live performances. Lest I be accused of harboring a specific misconception, when I say live performances I don't mean cross-country tours, which are loss-leaders for most present-day bands, worthwhile because they perk up record sales. (Of course, there are exceptions to this rule: The Grateful Dead, for example, or Phish. And in all likelihood, there will continue to be such exceptions.) No; when I say live performance, I mean weddings and bar mitzvahs, and I'm talking about groups that stay in touch with the tastes and demands of their local audiences.

This is not to say that music with broad-based popularity will disappear. Though many bands will now have more limited ranges of operation, their recordings will not suffer from the same limitation, and may attract a geographically widespread following. Even the traditional recording industry and its manufactured bubble-gum pop act still has a future. Again, enter corporate sponsorship. Right now, the motive for organizing and marketing acts like this is money from selling CDs, but there's no particular reason it couldn't be money from selling cola or khakhis instead. The sponsor simply needs to associate itself very strongly with its music, maybe even insist that it gets mentioned in a lyric or two, and it gets instant exposure.

A great many musicians, of course, would view corporate sponsorship as selling out. It's also easier for them to avoid striking such Faustian bargains than it is for filmmakers, who have to contend with much higher production costs. Amusingly, this might make the source of a music group's funding a useful metric in determining precisely what is bubble-gum pop and what isn't.

The Radio Industry

Radio will undergo transformations basically analogous to those that will happen in television. The broadcast method will cease to make as much sense for recorded content, so the niche in which, say, music stations operate will become still more circumscribed.

Likewise, even live commercial content will suffer from a weakening of the commercial break. Again, sports will be an exception. Radio stations will have some ability to deal with this via product placement, but less than television.

And again, public programming will likely be able to chug along as it always has.

The Publishing Industry

The status quo on books does not have to change, although the text of a book is, well, already digital. In fact, computerizing a printed text and redistributing it digitally wouldn't be hard work -- just get a few dozen fans together and assign each a chapter to retype. It won't matter, because the preferred way to read a book is on printed, professionally bound pages. Even if a book is available in digital form, the present alternatives to buying a bound version are reading the book onscreen or printing and binding the book oneself. Reading onscreen isn't easy on the eyes and makes it hard to take the book into bed or out to the beach, even if you have a laptop. Printing a hard copy costs a lot in time, paper, toner, and printer depreciation, and after all that, the copy isn't all that well-bound. Simply buying a professionally-bound version is generally cheaper and more convenient.

Even for evanescent forms of the printed word, like newspapers and magazines, using the print-version of the item has a number of advantages. Sheet music, in fact, is the only printed medium I can think of where bound copies resoundingly lose out to what the consumer could print out himself, so long as the soft copy which the printout comes from is easy to modify. Even that would only be true of relatively short pieces, or a single instrument's part as opposed to a full orchestral score.

In spite of all this, digital texts may well have a place in the system. Making text available digitally, since few people will want to read a long work that way, can serve as teaser for authors looking to sell bound copies. Also, when the full text of a work is available digitally it makes it easy to search through it for specific words and phrases. (A nod to the classics server at MIT is appropriate here. It was a wonderful tool to have when I was writing papers on the Greek tragedies -- English translations of which are in the public domain -- my freshman year of college. Another to Project Gutenberg is also appropriate.) For these reasons, we may see a trend in which publishers tend to make the digital form of their works available for download.

This carefully balanced system will all come crashing to the ground if digital books become a preferred way to read. That is, if a technology develops which displays text digitally in a package that's as convenient to use as a printed book. Such a technology could, for example, be built around the electrosensitive rewritable paper presently being developed. (Writing an image to such paper would take a fraction of a second, and it's projected that a a single sheet of the stuff could last for a million rewrites or more.) Just bind a pair of digital pages inside a cover threaded with circuitry, add some controls, and put a communications port in the spine: instant paradigm shift. In fact, such a device would in many respects be decidedly more convenient than a traditional book -- it'd be lightweight, and obtaining a new text would just be a question of downloading it.

Of course, some niches for bound books will remain should this happen. Keeping a few well-stocked bookshelves around the house may remain socially prestigious. Some people dig the total sensory experience of reading a book -- feeling the pages, smelling the glue in the binding -- and perhaps that will persist. Bound books will likely fare better in tougher environments: in a backpack on a cross-country bus trip, for example, or a playpen. By-and-large, though, authors would have to make money plying their trade in much the same way that musicians will.

Rights for All Uses?

One last thing to consider, which applies to many of the above fields that have been discussed: if digital content is made free for individual use, the same needn't apply for all other uses. The business conducted by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers is a very instructive example in that regard. Music copyright holders abrogate the task of collecting public-performance duties to ASCAP, which then licenses its music library to entities that would tend to perform the songs held therein (radio and television stations, retail stores, sporting arenas, restaurants, businesses that play music when they put you on hold, elevator-proprietors of all sorts -- heck, even Happy Birthday is still under copyright 2). ASCAP auditors then go out into the field to catch violators. Which is to say, auditing is effective way to enforce traditional IP law when the field of potential violators is limited.

So, free redistribution of content doesn't necessarily mean that every band on the planet automatically gets the right to do covers of whatever songs they please, that publishers will automatically have the right to publish print editions of another publisher's book even if the text itself is freely available, that a play with freely-redistributable text can automatically be staged, and so on.

I'd argue that explicitly granting such rights, however, is in most cases the right thing to do, for both moral and practical reasons.

The moral reasons I've already touched on. If it's moral for the artist to give the consumer free control over his content, surely that wouldn't involve drawing distinctions on the different ways it can be used 3.

From a practical standpoint, if an artist grants these performance-type rights to her work, it increases her exposure. Which, as I've been saying all along, is the key to soliciting donations, seeding the market, selling to advertisers, and so on. It's quite plausible that the additional revenue rolling in from those sources would easily outweigh what she could have gotten from performance royalties instead. Besides that, certain organizations -- prestigious symphony orchestras playing modern pieces in concert, for example -- would likely feel obliged to pay royalties to the artists that create what they perform, even if it's not strictly necessary for them to do so. An artist's performance royalties may not even appreciably suffer insofar as that holds true.

Encouraging the System to Change

I've talked about the effects of widespread copyright violation a great deal here. I feel that being party to it, however, makes it harder to adopt the moral high-ground when discussing the issue. It makes it seem as though you accept everything about the present system except the direct costs to you. No; the thing to do is to support artists that begin to freely release their work, and to respect the wishes of those that don't while encouraging them to examine the wellsprings that these wishes come from.

And if you're an artist yourself, leading by example can't hurt.

1 Or perhaps this could be done with just one click, Amazon.com's legal department allowing.

2 If this doesn't convince you that the world's intellectual property system is at least a little bit broken, I don't know what will.

3 The only uses that I feel should be treated differently are those that could impinge on the integrity or the freedom of the work. Some examples of such uses: making major changes to a work without providing an accounting of what was changed; making false claims of authorship; or swallowing pieces of code that were intended to remain free -- e.g., licensed under the GNU GPL -- and rolling them into a proprietary product.

neo-slaves?, posted 11 Aug 2000 at 09:55 UTC by mettw » (Observer)

So, basically, you're saying that musicians, authors, programmers and any other copright protected producer should spend a year or more producing their albumn/book/programme without any income at all and then have to either beg or do something else to recoup their costs and attempt to gain enough funding for their next project?

No offense - No, actually I do mean offense - pull your head out of your arse! What we do is extroadinarily risky so, as stipulated by the rules of capitalism, the rewards for sucess must be extroadinarily high. The only way you can get those sort of rewards from esr's half-wit business models is through the now burst internet bubble.

pull your head?..., posted 11 Aug 2000 at 13:17 UTC by tladuca » (Apprentice)

Quick reply:
That is the best you can say? Maybe you should pull you head out of your arse! Really. Protecting copyright, protecting piracy and illegal copying is going to become almost impossible in the future, and the current rules we play by are quite possibly might not work. Capitalism may just be a barrier to the adjustments we are going to have to make. And there is nothing written in stone that says musicians and authors and movie makers have to get paid for a living. These are not essential things. They can be shifted to the domain of "things you make in your spare time". Capitalism is great for certain things but it is NOT necessarily the "one true way".

who says we need to live off of it?, posted 11 Aug 2000 at 14:51 UTC by superpete » (Apprentice)

intellectual property is funny. Its only "natural" form of existence is through contracts and licenses. If you feel like making money is selling the copies, you have to maintain ownership by using restrictive licenses/contracts or secrecy - i.e., non-Free distribution.

But who says the producers of our digital content need to sustain themselves doing it? whats wrong with amateur producers of digital content?

If the internet continues to be relatively free, maybe someday it will be perfectly normal for the bulk of the music (music is just an example) that we listen to to be produced by talented hobbyists who have day jobs (just like much of free software is made by people whose primary responsibility is something else. Of course i'm neglecting the fact that Free software is often made by people on the job to help do their job . . .)

Record Co's (using music as an example) want you to listen to professional musicians, which would naturally lead to restrictive intellectual *property* based distribution. If one day this notion dies, amateur music may become just as good (and why not?), and listening to it would become acceptable. its a sort of bizarre idea premised on the notion that amateur music can be just as good!

free sharing, posted 11 Aug 2000 at 16:03 UTC by sej » (Master)

How about licensing distribution to the general public, and distribution for economic exchange, but allowing private uncompensated sharing of libre art? The organizations building their livelihood on it will have to pass on some of their wealth, but the individual enjoying and evolving the art won't pay until they join in the money-making.

Living off of it, posted 11 Aug 2000 at 16:36 UTC by schoen » (Master)

It's been possible for some people to be professional musicians for a long time, in many societies. You just get paid for live performances.

Now that recordings are possible, more people have been paid to be professional musicians, because they could contract with the recording industry, and copyright could artificially create a large market for commercial distribution of music recordings.

Without copyright or maybe without the ability to enforce it, fewer people can live off of being professional musicians. (It's not surprising that professional musicians don't like this, unless they have ethical objections to copyright.)

But the recording industry exists only because of copyrights; professional musicians don't exist only because of the recording industry.

Be serious... Artists cannot all be hobbyists, posted 11 Aug 2000 at 16:53 UTC by Raphael » (Master)

I think that tladuca and superpete are extremely short-sighted. Some parts of the hacker culture are linked to Sci-Fi, which comes from books and is often translated into big and expensive movies. I like to read books and watch movies. Most of these could never be produced by hobbyists, especially the movies that require a huge initial investment. Sure, I wouldn't mind if some of the current movie producers disappeared because most movies suck anyway, but even the big Hollywood studios can produce a true jewel from time to time. And I would not want to loose these.

The artist (the one who has lots of great ideas) is far from being the only person involved in producing a work of art (book, painting, music, movie, whatever). Some of the tasks that are necessary for producing the expected results are not very exciting and I doubt that many hobbyists would be eager to do that in their spare time. For example, I am not sure that I would like to spend most of a year coloring thousands of intermediate frames in a cartoon that was drawn by some artist(s). Or translating a novel to another language: if I understand the book in its original language, why would I need to spend countless hours translating it, when I am not sure that anyone else would be interested. The production of some digital contents requires many small or large tasks in which there is no "itch to scratch", yet the job needs to be done somehow. Currently, the best way to ensure that the work is done is to pay someone to do it.

Many artists can be hobbyists and still produce great things. This is has always been true. But claiming essentially that all of them should get another job and work on their masterpiece in their spare time does not really make sense.

Re: who says we need to live off of it?, posted 11 Aug 2000 at 18:50 UTC by stefan » (Master)

If the internet continues to be relatively free, maybe someday it will be perfectly normal for the bulk of the music (music is just an example) that we listen to to be produced by talented hobbyists who have day jobs (just like much of free software is made by people whose primary responsibility is something else

I think you are missing the point quite a bit. Look at a broader concept of wealth and economy. Then you'll see that more and more of it doesn't fit into the capitalist scheme of commodity exchange, as others pointed out. To put all these phenomena into the hobby box seems more an attempt to defend the status quo of capitalist business, i.e. to neglect completely the growing importance these new exchange processes have. Capitalist ideology tells us that the (free) market is the only way to produce wealth. Every society will try to defend itself. However, it should be clear that things continually evolve, the notion of property will become less and less fit to deal with the new situation. Eben Moglen expresses that nicely.

Olympus?, posted 11 Aug 2000 at 20:32 UTC by stripling » (Apprentice)

First let me get my biases out of the way. I'm a lawyer, and I represent people who make their living from controlling the rights to their intellectual property -- not all my clients, but some. I'm in favor of having intellectual property protected. I don't think the current regime does a bad job of it, either. You state "... that offering content freely constitutes a morally healthier way of doing things." You don't say heathier than what, but I'll guess from the context that you mean heathier than selling content. I disagree. I don't find a moral issue in giving content away or selling it. The owner gets to choose. If the creator of content owns it, I don't see why she shouldn't have the right to choose to sell it, give it away, or burn it. It is her property. Of course, there's always stealing it from her -- but that's not the morally healthier way of doing things, is it?

Your suggested alternatives to making a living by selling content just don't work, in my humble opinion. Soliciting donations? I live in the San Francisco area, and people are beating the doors down on donors, public funds, private funds, and friends and relatives to get funding to make their video for POV, their first feature film on digital tape, their first record. By relegating creative people to soliciting donations, you relegate them to day jobs to live while they pound the pavement looking for donors. That's already the situation around here, I'm afraid. The ones who have already successfully produced a television show, movie, record get first dibs on the money, even if their venture was not for profit, and they still have to have a day job. Your suggestion perpetuates the status quo for way too many creative talents.

Selling copies which are freely available on the Web doesn't really work for TV shows. Where do you pick up a copy for sale? Or an independent movie? Or a live performance? What does a copy cost the artist out of pocket before a copy can be sold? You're making a night job get stacked on top of the day job so the artist can pay for copies -- they aren't free, you know. Someone has to front the money.

Corporate sponsorship? Isn't that selling out? Blair Witch with what, cans of Coca Cola strewn about the woods? Everyone in Gap jeans? Broadcast television and radio are paid for by commercials, yes. But taking television, the first run shows are often money-losers, maybe break-even for some hits. The real money is in the reruns. And the owners of the content get to license the shows for money in syndication. I'm still seeing reruns of I Love Lucy, Leave It To Beaver, and The Honeymooners. Someone is still getting paid for the rights to broadcast those shows. They weren't free.

Seeding the market? My creative artist wants to do a TV show on coping with the death of her mother from breast cancer. I'm open to suggestions on how to seed the market. And the ancillaries -- you know, the action figures and plush toys, maybe official T-shirts? Speakers fees? Yeah, right. Tons o' money rolling in for _that_ topic. The sad thing is, it's a real story with much to teach people. She'll keep her dayjob for now, though, while she figures out how to seed the market. And how to pay for action figures and plush toys. They're not free, you know. Someone has to front the money.

My bold prediction is that content will never become free, at least not as you envision it. ER, Survivors, and the like will continue to be made and protected by copyright, and tons of money will be made off the syndications of the programming. Music may change because of the ease of stealing copies and publishing them, but I haven't seen the market for movies and television shows that I see for pirated music. And reading books on a computer has a _long_ way to go before hardcopies are replaced by digital content.

Studios will still make blockbuster hits like The Matrix, The Cell, Hollow Man, Star Wars Episode LIII, and indies will make small films like Blair Witch, All Over Me, Pi, Ulee's Gold, and the like. But those blockbusters get financed from profits from all those dirty licensing agreements with first run theatres, second and third runs, video, Europe, Asia, and television. Free movies won't cut it, I'm afraid. Those special effects not only cost a ton of money, they create a ton of jobs that pay a ton of people a living wage. The Matrix on a Blair Witch budget and crew? Sorry. It's not free.

It isn't moral to _make_ people give their property away for nothing. In that case, to quote "Me and Bobby McGee," "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose." Stealing music, as you say, does not give anyone the moral high ground, but neither does compelling people to give up property rights without just compensation. (That's in the Bill of Rights, by the way, a moral high ground in its own right.)

You have lots of suggestions, and my suggestion is that, instead of asking others to make the sacrifice, you lead by example. Are you paid for your work? Give it up. Give your work away. Solicit donations for each item of work you are to produce so you can pay first for the raw materials (film stock, tape, camera and lens rentals, to name a few up front expenses for creative artists), get corporate sponsorship for each separate piece of intellectual property you create ("Buy Pepsi" popup windows in your code?), sell official T-shirts, arrange for speakers fees. Give your work away and ask people to contribute what they think it's worth. Lead by example.

By the way, if I disagree with the GPL, can I break it? I think that copyleft is just a little bit broken -- too restrictive -- so I'm going to break it. I'm going to create a program using gnus compilers and sell it, without making the underlying code available. You buy just the executable. Is that a problem for you?

Have fun.


Living off it . . . on second thought, posted 12 Aug 2000 at 03:40 UTC by superpete » (Apprentice)

Ok, I do have to agree with Raphael. Certain types of content/art like expensive movies don't work as a "hobby". (what about an army of hobbyists?)

Assuming the $$$$ somehow adds up, the original post shows ways to deal with those cases. But then the notion of some sort of ... entitlement for the producers is there (e.g., the right to play commercials). Nothing wrong with this.

But then what about the people who still yearn for a "more free" system? Would Advertisement-evasion would become the new "piracy"? Oh well, no utopia today i guess.

Some clarifications and some rebuttals, posted 12 Aug 2000 at 06:28 UTC by hiller » (Journeyer)

mettw and stripling: I'm not making or forcing anyone distribute their work under terms by which it would be freely redistributable. There are three reasons, far as I can think of, that artists might do so: 1) if the artists, like me, feel that it is the right thing to do -- clearly this won't describe everyone, nor will economic realities necessarily allow for it, but it will describe at least some minority; 2) if they find that they can make as much or more of a living by doing business based on something other than selling copies of their work; 3) if technological developments currently underway -- a high-bandwidth internet, mass-storage media burners that can be used in the home, etc. -- make trying to enforce traditional copyright law like trying to enforce laws against voyeurs and peeping toms in a world where everyone has X-ray vision. (Credit for the analogy goes to Roderick Long.) It's worth thinking and debating and writing about this at least for the sake of artists in circumstance #1 -- there are some out there; not everyone with these kinds of notions goes into writing software. I'm not especially claiming that circumstance #2 will hold true for everyone, or even anyone. I mean, I hope that this happens for some people, and things like public TV and radio seem to suggest that they would, but I'm just expressing thoughts here, not guarantees. The questions that I raise become critically important if circumstance #3 comes to be, though, and I feel that this will happen. (As I emphasized in the essay, feel free to disagree with me on this, but to understand my rationale you'll have to read the essay that I wrote with that specific thesis.)

"Should," asks mettw, "musicians, authors, programmers and any other copright protected producer spend a year or more producing their album/book/programme without any income at all and then have to either beg or do something else to recoup their costs and attempt to gain enough funding for their next project?" stripling raises similar concerns. Let's start with "should": when I stated my opinion that allowing content to be freely distributed is more moral, I did not mean that to be a normative standard to which artists should be held up. Also, when I discuss "Encouraging the system to change", I wasn't exhorting all artists to make their work freely redistributable, only those who agree with me. My apologies if this was unclear. And again, it may not matter who agrees with me if the X-ray vision scenario comes to pass. Although I'd hope that any artist in any situation -- 20 years ago, today, or 20 years from now -- would start small to hone her skills and to start attracting a following, rather than starting in with year-long opuses right away.

Aside from that, I specifically didn't talk about programmers and software in the essay. This is deliberate. There's already a decent body of work arguing that software should be free/open-source, and that this is practical, and that it won't put developers out of jobs. If you disagree with RMS, ESR, et. al. on these issues, there's certainly nothing anything I can say to convince you otherwise. The only thing that I can add is that the X-ray vision scenario won't happen to software for two reasons: there are trust issues involved in running software from some random source that's been cracked to do God-knows what, and a large proportion of software is used in business environments where auditing is an effective way to enforce copyright.

stripling, much of your reply talks about intellectual property as if it were the same as physical property. This is, well, not true. If I give someone my CD player, I no longer have a CD player. If I want to play CDs (and lack a second player), I have to go out and buy a new one. In contrast, if I e-mail someone Rhapsody in Blue on mp3, I don't have to deprive myself of the ability to play it -- I make a copy and send them the copy. This takes all of a few seconds -- near-zero cost. Producing or buying a new CD player costs a lot more. Speaking of the U.S. constitution, let's take a look at section 8, article 8, which grants Congress the power "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries". The interpretation of this that I often hear is the purpose of "ownership" rights for thoughtstuff is the public good, not some intrinsic right of the author or inventor. Thomas Jefferson, in fact, wrote a good deal on his ambivalence on whether intellectual property systems were right at all. I point these things out 'cause some of what you say seems to imply otherwise.

With regards to your suggestion that I stop accepting pay for working on free software: I'm guessing that you make that suggestion on the assumption that what I'd like to see artists do is tantamount to that. Maybe you're right, but I don't think the issues are that clear-cut.

By the way, if I disagree with the GPL, can I break it? I think that copyleft is just a little bit broken -- too restrictive -- so I'm going to break it. I'm going to create a program using gnus compilers and sell it, without making the underlying code available. You buy just the executable. Is that a problem for you?

Presumably, you mean something more like producing a compiler based on gcc's source code and then distributing that without source? Your point being that I rely on copyright to protect my interests. First off, I don't recall saying copyright was bad anywhere in my essay, though perhaps I didn't defend it as vigorously as I might have. Moreover, if there were no such thing as copyright -- I don't advocate this, but let's pursue it as a thought experiment -- I don't think I'd feel it necessary to write software licensed with GPL-like restrictions. Without copyright, there'd be few reasons for people not to make the source of their improvements and derivative works available as well; the concept of making software proprietary to begin with would largely go away.

Selling copies which are freely available on the Web doesn't really work for TV shows. Where do you pick up a copy for sale? Or an independent movie? Or a live performance? What does a copy cost the artist out of pocket before a copy can be sold? You're making a night job get stacked on top of the day job so the artist can pay for copies -- they aren't free, you know. Someone has to front the money.

One last point before I call it a day -- your prose is a bit unclear -- here you seem to have, well, completely missed what I was driving at. The video (to use your example) is a big, big bunch of ones and zeroes. It's available on the internet in this precisely this form. "Official copies" would also be available some other way. For example, the artist or the publisher could sell official copies on a web site, with consumers putting in orders as gestures of support. A few days later, a video disc gets delivered to her front door. Granted, artists might find that to this they need to produce copies on demand or in small runs should it prove hard to anticipate demand. This leads to some diseconomies of scale, but nothing terrible, since the asking price for an official copy is going to be much greater than the cost to produce that one copy. What I am most definitely not envisioning is artists holed up in garrets all night burning copy after copy of their work and then carpeting the populace with them as though they were AOL CDs. That would be absurd.

Error in example, posted 12 Aug 2000 at 23:08 UTC by stripling » (Apprentice)

> Presumably, you mean something more like producing a compiler based on > gcc's source code and then distributing that without source?

Yes, I got that part wrong. My apologies.


Another way to fund content, posted 13 Aug 2000 at 16:10 UTC by philhunt » (Journeyer)

Anopther vway that content is funded in the UK is through taxation. BBC TV programs are paid for this way. Also, writers whose books are borrowed from public libraries are paid for each borrowing by the state.

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