Monday, 25 March 2013

The Post-Copyright Age

Okay, someone has to call it, so I'm going to: copyright law is dead (apologies if you've already called it elsewhere, or you know of someone who has - send me a link?).

We're still in the 'violent death-throes' territory, to be sure, but well past the point of no return. Let me put it this way: an unenforceable law is no law at all, and nothing has proved copyright law unenforceable so thoroughly as the ham-handed and inconsistent attempts to enforce it. Digital sharing is here to stay, unless and until the internet itself goes away. Anything which can be digitised is fair game, and the only things that are safe are those that end-consumers can't use yet (like designs for hi-tech devices etc., but even their days are numbered).

And I don't honestly have a moral objection to this. I do, however, have a practical objection. Let's group all artists, designers, writers, etc. under the heading of 'intellectual property creators' ('IP creators') for want of a better term. My problem is this: IP creators need to be able to make a living from their creativity. It isn't just the rate of one's work but also the upper bound on its quality which is limited by sharing time with a day-job.

This isn't just self-indulgence, by the way. I take it as axiomatic that the purpose of intelligent life is intelligence, and that no human should have to do a job which could be done by a mindless automaton. We all have talents, and a moral duty to use them; all I'm saying is that we should get as many of the biological hurdles out of the way as possible. Sportspeople ought to be able to make a living from their sporting talents, and any other genuine and meaningful talent that falls outside IP creation ought also to be a source of livelihood.

I believe it should be possible to make a living from your talents; in fact, I believe it should be much easier than it currently is. It's a much-lamented fact that the corporate systems by which IP creators make money are at best bloated and at worst outright predatorial. Not all people who work for any given  creative-industries corporation are a waste of money, but the corporations themselves add a lot of baggage to what, in an ideal world, would be a relationship directly between creator and audience. Copyright law is fundamentally an artefact of the corporations.

What we need is a new model for how audiences can support creators, one which doesn't waste millions on Manhattan office rents and bonuses for board members.

If we look at things from a purely creator-audience viewpoint, the benefit of corporate capitalism has been its ability to pool audience money. Very few people have enough spare income that they could fund a creator's career by themselves, but we can each buy an author's book or a musician's album, and the sum will support that creator (in theory) after it's filtered through the corporate system.

Let's say that an IP creator, being a skilled worker but working in the job of their dreams, is worth something along the lines of £40,000 (~$60,000) a year - comfortable but not extravagant (yeah, okay, there's a whole massive argument to be had here, but can we leave it for another time?). Using authors as an example, since it's probably the one we know most about, we know that on a £9 paperback, an author's going to end up with maybe £1 of the sales revenue (numbers greatly simplified, of course). That means that to make your £40k, you're going to need to generate £360,000 in sales revenue.

Now, some of that £360k is going to people who are equally important in the process - editors, mainly, but also designers, typesetters etc. But a lot of it is going on the rent on the publisher's city-centre offices, corporate hospitality and shareholder profits, stuff in which an audience has no interest at all.

My point is not just that corporations are bloated and wasteful. I want to float an idea for an alternative model.

In times of yore, many IP creators (though no-one thought of them as such; they were 'artists', 'composers' etc.) were supported by patronage from the wealthy. Lords, kings and even sometimes high clergy would pay an artist's keep in exchange for the prestige of association and first call on the artist's services. Obviously, the system was far from perfect, but many of the greatest creators history has known benefitted from it.

Obviously, very few of us could hope to be patron to even a single IP creator. What I'm envisaging is a system of charitable 'patronage trusts', to which consumers could donate small amounts anually, and which would provide stipends to IP creators and cover publication expenses. As an example, our £40k-a-year author could be supported by just 8,000 people giving £5 each once per year; costs on a per-book basis are difficult to estimate, but an extra couple of thousand supporters ought to cover it.

Creators would apply to trusts for part or whole stipends on a model somewhere between applying for a regular job and applying for the kind of government and/or charitable grants that support many museums, theatres, academic research institutions and projects, and independent creative organisations. Trusts would have to operate on a fairly market-sensitive sort of basis, but without the burden of a corporate infrastructure and shareholder dividends to pay.

To get around the piracy problem, trusts could offer the bulk of the work they support for free and provide premium services to subscribers - this is a model that works well for a number of webcomics, I know, though I don't know whether that holds good for experiments with it in other fields.

This is all just a vague proposal at the moment, and I don't really know what the first step in pursuing it might be (except, obviously, finding a flagship creator likely to be able to create enough attention to get the idea off the ground), but given how difficult it is to predict what the creative industries will look like in ten years' time (or even next month), it's worth some sort of experiment, surely?

1 comment:

  1. I think it behooves all IP Creators to start thinking of alternatives. My Dad was always fond of saying, "Play by the rules until you're in a position to change them. Then change them." I think the digital age has put us all in that position, so we'd best do something about it!