Skip

"No one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money"
August 23, 2012 11:31 PM   Subscribe


 
1) No, but it'll get you on the Harvard Lampoon, and then you can get any comedy writing job you want, even if you're as unfunny as Any Borowitz.

2) Yes, unless you despise artists.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:52 PM on August 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's clear society should purchase the art "whole sale" via funding agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts. Just pay anybody who people read.

All nations purchase academia's works whole sale via funding agencies like the NSF, ESF, EPSRC, CNRS, etc. Could you imagine rewarding academics based upon where their ideas wound up being used? "Please explain all the stochastic differential equation tricks used by your trading algorithm so that we may compute your bill."

At the other end of the spectrum, all sensible nations purchase medical care whole sale by single payer health care systems, or similar, as well as paying for all university studies. Any other solution creates vast inequalities, restricts the medical profession to the financially ambitious, instead of the dedicated, etc.

Instead, we're pursuing this pathological American viewpoint that the rich must be given the opportunity to buy up absolutely anything and maximize their rent extraction from owning it.

It's worth mentioning that copyright was invented for censorship too, often still gets used that way.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:18 AM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Both of these essay questions and model a kind of clarity and tone I admire. They're not supposed to shout down the reader with opinionated answers; they're supposed to open conversation. Thanks for posting them.
posted by cgc373 at 1:18 AM on August 24, 2012


Sure, just look at, say, Stephen King, John LeCarré or Jonathan Franzen.
posted by chavenet at 1:35 AM on August 24, 2012


If people only read poetry, which you can never stop poets producing even when you pay them nothing at all, then the law of copyright would disappear in a trice.

That works in reverse too. If copyright were to disappear the only thing to read would be poetry, written by people who are independently rich or still living at home (and probably both.)
posted by three blind mice at 2:39 AM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


2) Yes, unless you despise artists.

Gee, loaded response much?

That's not at all clear anymore. For many years, the publishers and record companies were in the business of selling paper books and plastic disks, and the content to put INTO those books or ONTO those disks was, more or less, an incidental expense. The goal was always to move physical goods; if they could have sold blank books or records at premium pricing, they'd have been perfectly happy to do so. It requires massive infrastructure to make and ship books and records and CDs.... resource extraction facilities, refining operations, milling and pulping operations for wood, plastic and paper production, metal mining and refining for the data coating on a CD, and so on. And then they needed actual factories to print and bind books, or to press and package CDs or records. That's a huge capital investment.

In the digital era, we don't need those things anymore. Everyone in the world with an internet-connected computer has a fully functional printing press and CD factory. It's still expensive to make actual books for normal folks, but making real physical CDs is quite cheap, and then both variants can be produced in e-versions for nearly nothing, with only a tiny, tiny capital investment. (computer, and possibly some sound gear; you could probably do an okay tiny sound-recording setup for under $10K, nothing like the millions it took to build studios and giant record factories.)

So this is a very different world than it was even twenty years ago, and we haven't adjusted our expectations to match. Creating an original work is difficult, possibly expensive if it's video-based and needs sets built and the like, but once it's produced, copies are free. Their marginal cost is hard to differentiate from zero. You can make a billion copies for not much more than ten. In fact, all YOU ever have to do is make ONE copy and give it to someone, and then all further copying has literally and exactly zero cost to you. It's nearly zero, if you buy the bandwidth yourself, but it's exactly zero if you let other people use their bandwidth instead.

It seems to me that selling copies of things, as if they were physical disks, doesn't work that well in this environment, and certainly doesn't lend itself well to super-premium pricing. A patronage model seems closer, where if you like something, you give the artist some money so they'll make more, and then the artist finds and hires editors or mixers or camera people him or herself. You can do this with the 'purchase' model, but it's just dumb to use DRM or anything of the sort, because it's fundamentally a donation anyway. Anyone who wants to pirate your stuff can do so, easily, for free. They don't have to buy it, and if they do so, they're in essence just making a voluntary donation. So why make life hard on people who actually want to pay you?

Digital goods are fundamentally not scarce; once something has been created, the entire Internet can have copies. Every connected person can have it for free, with no impact on the creator. The cost for the bits is so low it's buried in the overhead of paying for the cable. And this will scale to any degree, to any number of users.
"If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas."

-- George Bernard Shaw
Digital goods are ideas, not apples.
posted by Malor at 3:04 AM on August 24, 2012 [8 favorites]


Digital goods are ideas, not apples.

Which is why a certain company for making the containers for digital goods was named Apple.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:53 AM on August 24, 2012


It seems to me that selling copies of things, as if they were physical disks, doesn't work that well in this environment, and certainly doesn't lend itself well to super-premium pricing. A patronage model seems closer, where if you like something, you give the artist some money so they'll make more, and then the artist finds and hires editors or mixers or camera people him or herself. You can do this with the 'purchase' model, but it's just dumb to use DRM or anything of the sort, because it's fundamentally a donation anyway. Anyone who wants to pirate your stuff can do so, easily, for free. They don't have to buy it, and if they do so, they're in essence just making a voluntary donation. So why make life hard on people who actually want to pay you?

Not picking on you specifically, but I find it interesting how people feel so free to tell artists exactly how they should and shouldn't make their living. "It's technically possible to steal your work, therefore you should beg for money!"

Coincidentally, here is an article that tells us that we should abolish copyright and patents because they harm the free market. Good luck with that.
posted by gjc at 5:04 AM on August 24, 2012


Does Writing Better Make Us Money?
posted by larry_darrell at 5:38 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's not just technically possible, it's free. The price of all goods always tends toward their marginal cost of production, and the marginal cost of digital goods is really close to zero.

A War on Piracy will be just about as effective as a War on Drugs, and it will have enormous, terribly damaging effects on the economy.

It's stupid to pay for something that's free to make. It's just dumb. It's like paying for air. If you like what some people are adding to the air, then pay them to make more of it, but you don't pay for the air itself. That's ridiculous.
posted by Malor at 5:44 AM on August 24, 2012


From another angle:

but I find it interesting how people feel so free to tell artists exactly how they should and shouldn't make their living.

I find it super interesting that artists feel so free to tell me how I can use my computer, when I am not depriving them of anything, or really affecting them in any way at all.
posted by Malor at 5:49 AM on August 24, 2012


From the second article: How would this situation change the way a writer works?

One just has to look outside the anglosphere, in cultures that have small markets of native speakers, to find an answer to this question. In France, for example, there's only 10-50 writers able to make a living from selling novels. Other writers have jobs, like the last winner of the Goncourt prize (a 640-page historical epic), who is a high school biology teacher. Still, there's a glut of 600 novels competing in the literary prize season next month. Parks cites the Millennium series: the WP page for Stieg Larsson claims that "he had written them for his own pleasure after returning home from his job in the evening, and had made no attempt to get them published until shortly before his death". So there: the most commercially successful example of contemporary Swedish literature was written by a "blockhead".

So the answer is that outside the US/UK, at least, no promise of income does not prevent people from writing and that they still manage to write "major novels". The main difference may be that such cultures have 1) strong social safety nets and 2) a smaller writing industry i.e. fewer people competing to breed the next cash cow featuring sparkling vampires or budding wizards.
posted by elgilito at 6:01 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


If copyright were to disappear the only thing to read would be poetry, written by people who are independently rich or still living at home (and probably both.)

The idea that lack of copyright inherently means that people can't be paid to produce art is a false equivalency. These days creating something like a novel or a film is more or less like the old days of radio broadcasting where once it's out in the air there's no logistical way to force each individual consumer to pay for it. Copyright is only useful if your business model revolves around having a monopoly on copying, which right now at least is a technical impossibility. Personally I think crowd-sourced patronage like Kickstarter makes a lot of sense if you take it as a given that you don't have control over the copying of the eventual end-product.
posted by burnmp3s at 6:03 AM on August 24, 2012


It's not that it's free to make - it's very close to free to make. Remember Radiohead? They cut out a vast army of middle men, told their fans to pay what they thought their work was worth and did very very well for themselves.

The other thing about the old model that never seems to get weighed in these discussions are the percentage of artists who could have been Steven King or Mic Jagger, but, through some twist of fate, ended up working at a factory somewhere and most of us never heard of them. The existent system looks great if you're a Joe the Plumber types, who is sure your big break is coming any day now, but for a huge swath of artists the return on investment, no matter the quality of their work, is probably greater if they give up their art and work really hard at becoming a middle manager at the factory.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:07 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's not just technically possible, it's free. The price of all goods always tends toward their marginal cost of production, and the marginal cost of digital goods is really close to zero.

The cost of a creative act does not lie primarily in the technical production. That's the crafting cost, and it's nice, but if it were reduced to zero, art would still have a price. Similar, the cost of digital distribution is not the issue here. A digital good is not an abstraction, it's a physical reality – composed of soundwaves or pixels or performances or carefully crafted words – and the cost of creating those things can be tremendous, practical requirements aside.

I'm saying this as a recent art school graduate who's spent fifteen months working on a single written piece, and who's probably looking at another solid month of work before the "product" is done. Writing! The medium that's never cost anything! But certain (most?) forms of writing require considerable effort. They need to be structured, edited/revised, restructured. The final words you see when you read are the proverbial tip of the iceberg: the words you never see are just as important. A high school teacher of mine had access to the poet Robert Haydn's personal archives, and he showed us the many, many drafts of his "Monet's Waterlilies". Somewhere between 150 and 250 revisions, ideas bouncing back and forth until they finally found a settling point, an emergence that gave them subtlety and nuance.

Art is not idea. Art is an experience, an actuality that takes you to a unique place. Whatever ideas art may hold can be declared somewhere else, for free, so that nobody misses out, but claiming that digital art is an "idea" simply because it's digital is frustratingly wrongfooted.

This is not an excuse for our copyright law, which sucks and is terrible. And it's not an attack against piracy, which I love very much. But your narrow libertarian stance of "art should be free because it doesn't cost a thing to make" reduces art to something meaner and worse than it really is, and the assumption that individual works of art are worthless is harmful and personally offensive to me.

There are interesting things an artist can charge for. In some cases, I still think it's moral to sell a product itself – long works of music, films, books are worth some money. Musicians who offer a few downloads off an album and charge for an album give me something for me to enjoy without money, and offer me even more if I choose to pay them. Or there're models like Bandcamp, where it's free to listen, even on mobile, but costs to download. Kindle Singles work similarly, where you get a sample of a long piece for free, then pay a buck or two to read. Hulu's good for the shows it holds, and ads-for-free-TV is a bargain I'll accept.

The method of commerce has to change. But many artists I know are worried about exactly what's seemingly happening here – that immediate access to everything cheapens our opinions of it, and furthermore punishes art and artists who pursue subtler, less instantly entertaining aims. Ultimately it's the responsibility of artists, not consumers, to find ways of leading their would-be audience to their art, but they're absolutely facing a disrespect that's frustrating, and a bit unsettling, to see from otherwise smart people. Lines like...

If you like what some people are adding to the air, then pay them to make more of it, but you don't pay for the air itself.

...are so contemptuous and wrong re: what I and my peers do that I find it hard to respond politely and without collapsing into a big puddle of rage. I think my ideal digital-distribution world would look very similar to Malor's, but I'd like us to push for that kind of distribution without scorning the richest parts of our culture in the process.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:15 AM on August 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


Rory: I think you missed Malor's key word "marginal". Of course art takes a lot of investment to make, but the cost to reproduce much of it is essentially zero. For that reason it is somewhat futile to try to recoup the cost on each copy - it just doesn't jibe with people's sense of price equity.

As for your digital distribution idea, (that files should be free to play, but cost to copy) you do realize that the mere act of "playing" a file necessitates making a digital copy? The distinction between streaming and copying is entirely artificial, and would require a nasty set of corporate controls over the entire world's computers to enforce strongly. Luckily most companies don't try anymore. It is enough to set the price so low that people can't be bothered to disobey the rules.
posted by Popular Ethics at 6:28 AM on August 24, 2012


It's stupid to pay for something that's free to make. It's just dumb. It's like paying for air. If you like what some people are adding to the air, then pay them to make more of it, but you don't pay for the air itself. That's ridiculous.

The *file* might be free to make, but the *content* is not. Classic 19th century "widget and factory" economics don't work with IP. That doesn't make IP wrong, that makes the economics wrong.

This is the first of many problems that we will run into as we (hopefully!) transition into a post-scarcity society. And any solution that forces people whose work IS in demand to depend on the largess of others to make their living simply will not fly.
posted by gjc at 6:37 AM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


but I find it interesting how people feel so free to tell artists exactly how they should and shouldn't make their living.

Many of the people doing the "telling" are professional artists themselves. Setting up a binary where all artists support the current IP system and anyone who doesn't cannot therefore be an artist is highly misleading.
posted by jet_manifesto at 6:40 AM on August 24, 2012


The law doesn't protect private property out of abstract intention, it protects it because investors in property lobby for such protections.

The definition of protectable private property has thus evolved to track investment quite well -- we have a much longer term of copyright now than we once had, because the initial investment in copyrightable goods is so much higher (costs a lot more to produce a movie than write a novel).

Regardless of people's sense of moral entitlement to do what they want with their computers, any form of creative production that can generate significant return on investment if protected will get effective protection on that investment. That protection doesn't have to prevent 100% of theft to be effective of course, but it will disregard (some) people's more intuition about doing what they want with their computers, and will definitely disregard economic reasoning about prices falling to the marginal cost of production. (As to that last point, intellectual property has always violated the maxim -- and entertainment isn't a particularly good example; pharmas happily sell drugs for "orphaned" life-threatening conditions at 50x and 100x their marginal production cost, because the regulatory and insurance systems grant them recovery of their R&D risk and investment.

One interesting implication of this is that books (with a generally low required investment) will ultimately be less-well protected media that costs more to produce, and thus much more vulnerable in practice to piracy.
posted by MattD at 6:41 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I find it super interesting that artists feel so free to tell me how I can use my computer, when I am not depriving them of anything, or really affecting them in any way at all.

1- They aren't telling you how you can use your computer, they are telling you how you cannot use your computer. One of the basic concepts of liberty- you can do whatever you want as long as it doesn't infringe on others.

2- And it DOES affect them. Perhaps imperceptibly and incalculably if it's just you downloading a rip of a CD instead of paying Amazon for it, but you are still part of the aggregate demand for their work. And if you "share" the file with others, you affect them in a very real way, fulfilling demand that the creator should rightly benefit from.
posted by gjc at 6:44 AM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Similar, the cost of digital distribution is not the issue here. A digital good is not an abstraction, it's a physical reality – composed of soundwaves or pixels or performances or carefully crafted words

Rory, you know I like you, but this is just wrong.

A digital good is a number

That's all. It's just a number. And the entire world is covered in machines that are hyper-specialized number duplicators.

Yes, the number was really hard to come up with. But it is still a number.
posted by Malor at 6:48 AM on August 24, 2012


Many of the people doing the "telling" are professional artists themselves.

Which is their right. That's the whole point: artists have the right to distribute their work in as many or as few ways as they wish.
posted by gjc at 6:50 AM on August 24, 2012


1- They aren't telling you how you can use your computer, they are telling you how you cannot use your computer. One of the basic concepts of liberty- you can do whatever you want as long as it doesn't infringe on others.

The cost in policing what I do with my computer would so grossly outweigh any possible good as to be laughable. The destruction of civil liberties and economic prosperity would be dramatic. But if every entertinament writer and filmmaker on the entire planet stopped working right this minute, eh, so what? A few less dollars would change hands. Big deal.

Conservatives want drug and vagina police, and you want computer police. But all of them are fundamentally doomed ideas, ones that will cause far more grief than they could ever possibly fix.

I have an idea. How about just providing a service that people like, and are willing to voluntarily pay for?
posted by Malor at 6:54 AM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


A digital good is a number

That's all. It's just a number. And the entire world is covered in machines that are hyper-specialized number duplicators.

Yes, the number was really hard to come up with. But it is still a number.


See, that's the problem. You mistake the medium for the message. The cost for the value.

We are all just meat, but life still has value.
posted by gjc at 6:58 AM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Digital goods are ideas, not apples.

And yet everybody got all het up in the other thread, where one person took another person's pen idea and made money on it themselves. What was the loss, if any, to the original creators fo the pen idea?
posted by escabeche at 6:58 AM on August 24, 2012


The cost in policing what I do with my computer would so grossly outweigh any possible good as to be laughable. The destruction of civil liberties and economic prosperity would be dramatic. But if every entertinament writer and filmmaker on the entire planet stopped working right this minute, eh, so what? A few less dollars would change hands. Big deal.

Conservatives want drug and vagina police, and you want computer police. But all of them are fundamentally doomed ideas, ones that will cause far more grief than they could ever possibly fix.


You've set up a ridiculous strawman, and countered it with hyperbole. Well done. Just because you don't care about the rights that copyright law protect, doesn't mean that they aren't deserving of protection.
posted by gjc at 7:05 AM on August 24, 2012


You mistake the medium for the message. The cost for the value.

See, that's your mistake, that you think that the value can only be measured by transfers of money in exchange for bits.

That's dumb. Bits are free. It's like inventing perfume, and then demanding that society track where every molecule of your perfume goes, and pay you for it.

Tracking that perfume would cost society much more than any value it could ever get in exchange. It's probably worth going after mass-market perfumeries that are duplicating your fragrance, but not regular people.

Instead, make people want to pay you. As Techdirt puts it, be open, human, and awesome, and people will give you lots of money so that you can keep being open, human, and awesome.

Amanda Palmer just pulled in a million bucks with a bunch of flashcards, for chrissake.

I think encouraging your customers because you like them and they like you is healthy. Threatening them with prison if they refuse to live their lives on the terms you demand is authoritarian, and kind of sick, to be honest.

If you think you need to threaten your fans, you need to find something else to do.
posted by Malor at 7:09 AM on August 24, 2012


Parks ends the first piece with this contrast:

But for every Ananthamurthy there will be scores of local writers who did not find sufficient income to continue; for every Rushdie there will be hundreds whose reputation never reached that giddy orbit where a certain kind of literature can survive without the sustenance of a particular community of readers.

To me, there's a question underlying this piece as to what sort of writing should be encouraged. Who can decide something like that? I recently picked up Rebecca Goldstein's Properties of Light again. There was something in the acknowledgements about how a MacArthur grant had made it possible for her to write that book and I thought, "Really? Someone that established still needs an infusion of money to get the next book out?" But she is a very unusual writer, with a very extensive academic background and in fact, each of her books has probably cost a ton of money in terms of the cost of her education. I'm sure some people think it wasn't worth it. I think the world would be poorer if she hadn't written them but I'm not prepared to defend any system designed to produce that kind of work; it seems like a preposterous end goal.
posted by BibiRose at 7:22 AM on August 24, 2012


A digital good is a number

That's all. It's just a number. And the entire world is covered in machines that are hyper-specialized number duplicators.

Yes, the number was really hard to come up with. But it is still a number.
Molecular combinations are hard to come up with, but they're still just atoms.
Bits are free.
And carbon is plentiful.

That "number" that's so hard to come up with is "generated" through hard effort and toil, sometimes years of it. It took Frank Herbert six years to write Dune. If he hadn't been able to publish it in chunks in an SF magazine, for pay, Dune wouldn't exist. And that would be a shame, because that "hyper-specialized number" would never come to be without a person spending six years of his life getting it in order.

Reducing creation to its lowest common denominator is essentially nihilism, whether you're saying man is atoms floating in the wind or a recording of Beethoven's symphonies is no more than numbers. What matters isn't the material of the creation – it's what that material is used for.

(You could argue that a pure "patrons pay for what they like" system would sustain artists economically. But it's my opinion that the farther apart money gets from art, the better the art becomes. If you can only raise money for art by making a product people immediately know they want, then all artists have to become marketers. Personally I love marketing! But I'm a rarity, and many of my favorite artists loathe it.)
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:37 AM on August 24, 2012


And again, the outcome of my stance versus yours is that I support torrents and intelligent distribution platforms. So it's not even that I disagree with you on what world I'd like to live in. But platforms like Bandcamp work by building up respect for art, by letting us learn to love it before charging us top dollar, and the stance you're espousing sounds uncomfortably like tearing down respect and insisting that art doesn't have innate worth.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:39 AM on August 24, 2012


That's dumb. Bits are free. It's like inventing perfume, and then demanding that society track where every molecule of your perfume goes, and pay you for it.

This shows that you lack even a basic understanding of the concepts at hand. You are still mistaking the medium for the message. It isn't about the bits or the molecules.

Threatening them with prison if they refuse to live their lives on the terms you demand is authoritarian, and kind of sick, to be honest.

If you think you need to threaten your fans, you need to find something else to do.


Still with the strawman and the hyperbole.
posted by gjc at 7:54 AM on August 24, 2012


It's stupid to pay for something that's free to make. It's just dumb. It's like paying for air. If you like what some people are adding to the air, then pay them to make more of it, but you don't pay for the air itself.

So what do we do with the RIAA? Tell them to get entrepreneurial and set up a platform for publicizing artists that musicians can subscribe to in order to leverage their skills in promotion & distribution? You know, become a utility, sort of, and stop pretending to any ownership of the work themselves?

Like Squarespace, a web hosting provider who doesn't make any of the content they host. Instead they charge for use of their servers and the software that lets you set up a web site to push your own stuff.

(I am actually asking a serious question here.)
posted by wenestvedt at 7:54 AM on August 24, 2012


I think copyright law is very messed-up (at the very least, the period of protection is way too long). I also think that it is impossible to effectively combat digital piracy and attempts to do so have been insidious. On the other hand, I am worried that it will be increasingly difficult for anyone to have a career focusing on many intellectual or artistic pursuits, which is sad for people who want to do that and for people who want to enjoy the fruits of those pursuits.

Perhaps we will come up with a new economic model that will work, but I don't see any evidence that we have. It is hard to compete with free. The argument that people should have access to everything and then voluntarily donate to artists seems a lot like the argument that a government should not provide welfare and social services to citizens from tax revenue and these services should be paid for by money that wealthy people choose to donate. (Not to say that they are exactly equivalent, but there are definite similarities.)
posted by snofoam at 7:55 AM on August 24, 2012


The focus on the fact that we're selling fewer physical commodities these days, in favor of digital "commodities" is a red herring. Doesn't matter. Copyright was, historically speaking, never about ensuring that artists get paid.

It was, among other things (and this is really important), about making sure publishers get paid.

Artists and publishers have different risks. The artist's risk is that he'll invest the time and/or money to create a particular work without getting paid for it. There are several ways of covering that risk. One is patronage, i.e., an artist gets paid a salary, up front, and the patron then gets to do whatever with the works that are created. "Works for hire" is how we'd think about that now. The other is commission, i.e., an artist gets an order for a particular work, delivers it, and gets paid.

The publisher's risk is that he'll pay for the creation of a work and not be able to sell enough copies to make that money back. This could take the form of either advances to the artist or capital investments and inventory. Either way, they're publishing risks.

This distinction goes all the way back to Wheaton v. Peters, 33 U.S. 591 (1834), the first U.S. Supreme Court case about copyright. The holding there, following earlier House of Lords cases, was that if an artist wants to make sure that he gets paid, he's got a perfect way of doing so: selling the publication rights. If an artist creates a work, no one can publish it without his permission. The way he ensures he gets paid is selling that permission. Once sold, that's the end of it.

So what are royalties? Royalties are a way of shifting risk from publishers to artists. The artist's compensation, as such, is for the creation of the work. The publisher's compensation, as such, is for the sale of copies of the work. Publishers don't like advances very much, because that's money up front that they've no guarantee of making back. They really like royalties though, because that's no up front cost or guarantee of payment. But artists? Giving them royalties converts them to partners in the publishing business. Now they, like the publisher, are exposed to both the upside and downside risk of a work selling well. This can be good or bad for artists depending on a wide variety of factors, but make no mistake: royalties mean that an artist is becoming a publisher, trading a smaller advance for a chance at larger profits later on.

But the other things I mentioned are important? Here's the deal: piracy is actually really significant, not just in terms of money, but in terms of epistemological integrity.Galileo found that his efforts at converting people to his astronomical theories was greatly undermined by the existence of cheap piratical versions of his works, which didn't accurately reflect his observations. So someone who looked up at the night sky would say "Huh, that's not right. This guy's full of it." Several early-modern political figures found themselves in hot water with the authorities because people had published treasonous or heretical pamphlets under their names. Some of these were outright forgeries, but others were careless/malicious pirate editions that didn't accurately reflect the original.

Copyright serves to ensure the integrity of the relationship between the author and the reader. It's the difference between Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Harry Potter and the Big Funnel. It's the difference between legitimate software and malware-infested warez. It's why Wikipedia is so problematic. There's no way of telling who is saying what, or indeed even sometimes what is actually being said.

In short: copyright is an essential feature of the epistemic grounding of modern society, and modern society couldn't really exist without it. One of the things you're buying isn't just a good feeling about supporting artists you like. It's the value of establishing a direct, verified relationship with the artist. Putting a value on that is hard, but it's not zero. It does cost something more than just copying off more bits.
posted by valkyryn at 8:09 AM on August 24, 2012


Oh, and it's worth pointing out that the courts that have talked this way were perfectly fine with copyright terms only lasting fourteen or twenty-one years. Copyright is an absolutely critical piece of modern society. Perpetual copyright is unconstitutional and a bad idea.
posted by valkyryn at 8:10 AM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


> Instead, make people want to pay you. As Techdirt puts it, be open, human, and awesome, and people will give you lots of money so that you can keep being open, human, and awesome.

But that's not why we value good writing. Plenty of great writers were famously maladapted. Virginia Woolf made bank as a best-selling author in her day, but I doubt she was open, human, and awesome. AS Bayat more likely is, based on her writing, but I don't want to sit down and have a coffee with her, or email her or anything. I want her to be able to keep writing -- or, having written well, to have earned a more secure position in life -- because I've cried at the end of her stories.

Turning that into a customer service relationship is squicky.

On a more "commercial" tier, for that matter, I liked The Hunger Games and Harry Potter not because Suzanne Collins and JK Rowling are such nice people but because I got something out of the stories. And Collins didn't even get any of my money! I borrowed the book.

On the other hand, I agree that the costs of successfully enforcing copywrite laws verge on dystopian. They are far, far steeper than anyone should be willing to pay.
posted by postcommunism at 8:25 AM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


valkyrin: "Copyright serves to ensure the integrity of the relationship between the author and the reader. .. It's why Wikipedia is so problematic. There's no way of telling who is saying what, or indeed even sometimes what is actually being said. "

You were making an interesting argument until this point. Wikipedia is probably one of the most wildly successful piece of literature in the history of humankind. Just think about how many more people read and cite it every day compared to any other text. What's more, it COULD NOT EXIST if the copyright of its contributors were strictly enforced.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:12 AM on August 24, 2012


Wikipedia is probably one of the most wildly successful piece of literature

I love how tightly plotted wikipedia is, and how richly drawn the characters are.

Valkyrn's second point is relevant to copyright in general, and is something at least some authors have fought for. See Defoe, for example, arguing for copyright as a protection from the state and from publishers, and for fair compensation:
'Twould be unaccountably severe, to make a Man answerable for the Miscarriages of a thing which he shall not reap the benefit of if well perform'd; there is no Law so much wanting in the Nation, relating to Trade and Civil Property, as this, nor is there a greater Abuse in any Civil Employment, than the printing of other Mens Copies, every jot as unjust as lying with their Wives, and breaking-up their Houses.
I wish I could directly link paragraphs, because Defoe lays it out pretty similarly to how Valkryn did, and that was in 1704. It wasn't a historically unique sentiment either, and although later arguments were much more about who got paid than about who risked punishment, I'm pretty convinced it's a legitimate problem.

It's also a problem which overlaps pretty heavily with concerns about slander or plagiarism. I can't imagine that copyright is the one tool which can solve that problem.
posted by postcommunism at 9:39 AM on August 24, 2012


Wikipedia is probably one of the most wildly successful piece of literature in the history of humankind

No, it isn't. Interesting, certainly, but not "successful" in terms of anything but readership. Even on its own terms.

Don't get me wrong, I read it every day, and it's useful to a point, but it's hugely problematic.
posted by valkyryn at 9:40 AM on August 24, 2012


Virginia Woolf made bank as a best-selling author in her day, but I doubt she was open, human, and awesome.

And as she said, you need a room of your own and however many pounds a year. She belonged to a socioeconomic class where she could afford to write. And it turned out she could also write. Tons and tons of people like her have tried and come up with nothing.

Now, we talk mainly about commercial fiction. Even MFA type writing is a genre of commercial fiction today. And everyone writing can start "selling" if you mean putting your books electronically on Amazon for a buck. I'm on mailing lists with these people and they all talk about writing as a business relationship. I wonder what this is doing to the equivalent of a Virginia Woolf or an A.S> Byatt who is 13 today.
posted by BibiRose at 9:44 AM on August 24, 2012


. . .Defoe lays it out pretty similarly to how Valkryn did, and that was in 1704.

Probably because I was deliberately echoing Defoe, among others, though I didn't bother with the cite.

posted by valkyryn at 10:13 AM on August 24, 2012


I don't see why the question is whether money makes people write better. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that payment has no effect on writing quality, there's still a crucial question of whether money makes it worthwhile for people to spend their time writing high-quality material instead of doing something else to earn money.
posted by John Cohen at 10:44 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Given, I'm not a writer and I'm not talking about writing.)

I post an image that I've drawn and colored on my website every day. For free.

I hope to some day make money from these images and more like them.

If I never make money from them, will I stop?

Probably not. I love making them. It's what I've always wanted to do. I have been trying for years to find a medium to work in that satisfies me artistically and doesn't cause large amounts of frustration.

If I couldn't use a computer and get online would I stop?

No. I would paint canvases and if I couldn't sell them, I'd give them away in order to make room for more canvases.

Does copyright affect whether or not I create this work?

Copyright only affects me in that it would help me to stop the unauthorized sale of my work. But, as I've said before, if someone were making money off copies of my work, I'd probably want to go into business with him or her.


-A (visual) Blockhead
posted by mmrtnt at 1:08 PM on August 24, 2012


I am tired of being told that the ideal solution is to just write in one's spare time after work. The fact that it's possible for some people to do so is predicated on having someone else to take care of the cooking, the cleaning, the child-rearing -- or else to resign oneself (at least in the throes of a draft) to a bachelor-like existence of frozen pizza and uncleaned messes. I'm thirty now and I'm wondering how long I can keep doing it. Copyright is broken. But I don't think we'll like what results if the only writers are the people who can comfortably afford to be writers.
posted by Jeanne at 1:15 PM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


The integrity thing valkyryn raises is a red herring of sorts, it's basically the problem behind why we have trademarks, but for reasons not worth getting into a mix of technical and economic considerations has meant that there's been no trademark-equivalent extended into the grounds traditionally covered by copyright all that much; about the closest you come is the "moral rights" you see in some regimes and those are only *somewhat* analogous.

To a point copyright itself engenders work-arounds that promote confusion. Transmorphers exist because some people are under-informed and will rent or buy it instead of Transformers, but without copyright there'd be no reason to create a film meant to capitalize on that confusion, because you could just as easily run-off a copy of the real thing.

Things were different in the earlier age when preparing a book for a print run was more involved and you could save some time by typesetting a poorly summarized paraphrase of a book; but, now, it's just the legal difficutly of not being able to run off a copy, and compared to filming Transmorphers I'm sure that crowd would be much happier duplicating knock-off copies of Transformers if they had the option.

It's also, increasingly, only a concern in the scholarly arena because citation practices haven't really caught up with the digital era (and, perhaps in part, because citation practices are hampered by copyright). A canonical version of a cited paper matters because it's only cited with enough information to enable someone else to locate a copy of the original paper; if there are shoddy copies out there this becomes difficult, as there may be ambiguity about the contents of the cited paper as seen by the person citing it.

But, why not just include it all? If you're still thinking in terms of paper and printouts and copyrights this sounds somewhat insane -- think of your standard 5 page science paper with 100 cites... -- but digitally it's less and less of an issue the longer time goes on, and it would neatly solves the problem of "rotting references".

And, finally, it's important to point out that if copyright in some format is critically important for societal epistemology it's hard to see how you can take that concern seriously while simultaneously being against perpetual copyright; if there really are slavering hordes waiting to make a cheap buck or two by publishing off-price mischaracterizations of major scientific papers and works of literature then the epistemological rot would set in once some hypothetical 14-28 year term ran out...but, on the other hand, if that prospect isn't something that troubles you, why should we believe you when you say that the epistemological risk posed by weak copyright is something to take seriously?

Either it's a real problem or it isn't.
posted by hoople at 2:26 PM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Even if we assume for the sake of argument that payment has no effect on writing quality, there's still a crucial question of whether money makes it worthwhile for people to spend their time writing high-quality material instead of doing something else to earn money.

It's sort of the same thing. As far as I know, the only way to write well is to first spend a great deal of time writing badly.
posted by escabeche at 3:11 PM on August 24, 2012






« Older Байконур   |   Colorful Cephalopod Musical Reactions Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post