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"Essentially, it is all about money and power."
January 23, 2009 9:48 AM   Subscribe

"It would be naïve to identify the Internet with the Enlightenment. It has the potential to diffuse knowledge beyond anything imagined by Jefferson; but while it was being constructed, link by hyperlink, commercial interests did not sit idly on the sidelines. They want to control the game, to take it over, to own it. They compete among themselves, of course, but so ferociously that they kill each other off. Their struggle for survival is leading toward an oligopoly; and whoever may win, the victory could mean a defeat for the public good. ...We could have created a National Digital Library—the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Library of Alexandria. It is too late now. Not only have we failed to realize that possibility, but, even worse, we are allowing a question of public policy—the control of access to information—to be determined by private lawsuit."—Robert Darnton on what the proposed Google Book Settlement could mean for the pursuit of knowledge—Google and the Future of Books
posted by Toekneesan (44 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yes! It's not about "Intellectual Property," it's about "Cultural Monopoly."
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:00 AM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


certainly a side of things I'd never considered. thanks for the link.
posted by shmegegge at 10:05 AM on January 23, 2009


We'll be rescued by pirates, like in the song from The Threepenny Opera.
posted by Abiezer at 10:18 AM on January 23, 2009


It's an important issue - and we have real enemies. But given how things stand in the fighting between a well-funded industry with major lobbying connections and the tens (hundreds?) of millions of Us who are daily "stealing" their product with impunity, this is a rare instance when I'm prepared to be optimistic regarding the outcome.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:41 AM on January 23, 2009


As soon as someone develops a good way to read books from a digital source, book piracy will be the new music piracy. Still, nothing replaces having that library...
posted by seagull.apollo at 10:49 AM on January 23, 2009


>given how things stand in the fighting between a well-funded industry with major lobbying connections and the tens (hundreds?) of millions of Us who are daily "stealing" their product with impunity, this is a rare instance when I'm prepared to be optimistic regarding the outcome.

I'm not. If the X millions of us have to fight the gov't over it too now, that could be a good lifeline for the copyright maximalists. I agree that it would be much better if people wrote their congressperson instead of breaking the law, but who wants to discuss policy when "zOMG CHECK OUT THE NEW KANYE ALBUM" ?

It's one reason why I hope ChangeCongress.org gets something done: so that people don't have to fight lobbyists over policy. Yes, there are public interest lobbyists as well, etc, etc, but I don't want to write a novel here.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 10:57 AM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Darnton on modern professors: "They wrote the articles, refereed submissions, and served on editorial boards, partly to spread knowledge in the Enlightenment fashion, but mainly to advance their own careers."

Because, as we all know, there was no ego amongst enlightenment scholars.

I agree with many things in this article, but that little jab was annoying and largely untrue.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 11:00 AM on January 23, 2009


I read the whole thing, but I'm not sure I understand... what seems to be the crux of the argument is that Google will have a monopoly on digitized, in-copyright book material, which might be a dangerous thing. But is that worse than having in-copyright material go undigitized?

Also, this seems like a huge independent clause just thrown in as an aside:

"Apart from Wikipedia, Google already controls the means of access to information online for most Americans"

(Aside from financial resources, which hasn't impeded Wikipedia yet) what's to stop an open-source organization from digitizing all of the out-of-copyright book material in the world? i.e. an open-source, non-profit Bartleby on steroids.

(Also, does Google really "control" the means of access to information online, or is it simply the preferred option for users because it works the best?)

The answer to the proferred "problem," as always, seems to be revising the copyright restrictions. 14 years seems like a plenty long enough term.

(Maybe I missed the point. I did read it pretty quickly (mostly because I got halfway through and was thinking "I don't see the problem."))
posted by mrgrimm at 11:08 AM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the author greatly overstates the value of Google Book Search, even the free, open, non-monopolized version that he proposes. He suggests that we could have an Enlightenment-style meritocratic utopia if only people had free access to the world's knowledge.

Well, bad news for him, but people already have access to more knowledge than they care for. Wikipedia, Knol, the Public Library of Science, OpenCourseWare, Project Gutenberg, online art museums, and the various Patent Offices already maintain an enormous body of classical and modern knowledge that is easy to search and free to reuse. This is science, art, literature, and philosophy on a massive scale, all freely accessible at a library internet terminal or from home for a modest cost. Yet we do not see a new Enlightenment.

This should not come as a surprise. Consider human nature. The vast majority of people fill any free time they have with television or passive internet use. Very few people engage in self-education, much less the creation of new works. Hell, 2/3rds of Americans without broadband internet access don't even want it. That's something like 155 million people--or half the country--that simply do not care about any of this.

While there is a lot of value in making information freely available, I see no reason to compromise the current blend of patronage, procurement, and property that has been more effective at producing and disseminating information than any prior system. And if Google someday decides to be an evil monopoly, then the government has methods for dealing with that: eminent domain, antitrust laws, shortening the duration of copyright, eliminating copyright protection for works that are long out of print or have no registered owner, etc.

Finally, I disagree with his assertion that 'Google alone' has the resources to digitize books. Lots of companies have the resources, they just don't have the business model to profit from digitization. If Google starts making a lot of money off of digital books, expect competitors to appear. Google is not magical: it's just (so far) competent. There is no reason another company could not do the same thing Google has with Book Search, given a couple hundred million in VC funding and a business model.

Lastly, remember that an absolutely enormous percentage of the works that Google is digitizing have almost no value. The ones that are out of print and out of copyright (~14%) are unprofitable and of little interest to volunteers and academics or else they would have been digitized already. The ones that are out of print and in copyright (~71%) are merely unprofitable. Again, this should not be surprising. Think of all the crappy literature and outdated nonfiction that has been produced in the last 200 years or so. It is fine and noble to collect this for posterity (and it will always be of some value to historians, anthropologists, sociologists, etc), but do not think that Google will be sitting on a gold mine of millions upon millions of priceless written treasures. The majority of valuable information is already being leveraged, whether as purchasable books or free, online content.
posted by jedicus at 11:08 AM on January 23, 2009 [5 favorites]


So content that's still privately-owned will only be available through a privately-owned service? Yawn.

Listen, I fully acknowledge that the current term of copyright is ludicrous and would be 100% in favor of any movement to reduce it. But in the meantime, the principle is solid. Authors and publishers deserve the right to set their own prices, and limit access with full force of the law.

It all comes down to this quote from the article: "The Founding Fathers acknowledged authors' rights to a fair return on their intellectual labor, but they put public welfare before private profit." That's true, but incomplete. They recognized that private profit is part of the public welfare, because it's an incredibly effective way to motivate content creation in the first place.

Thus, in order to be beneficial to the public welfare, libraries must walk a fine line: convenient enough to be useful, inconvenient enough to leave the private market enough oxygen to thrive. There must be a threshold at which, for some people, the "cost" in time and effort to check something out from the library is greater than the cost to buy it new.

That works fine at the moment, because having to actually go there, find your book, wait in line, etc, is a significant "cost" to many people. But since we're talking about digitization, we have to imagine the sci-fi "ideal" library, in which you can just go on the internet and download the latest Twilight novel onto your Kindle or whatever. But there's the conflict... that fucks up the fine line, because the sci-fi "ideal" bookstore will work identically. So now there's no inconvenience cost to the library, it's just a different web site you go to, except the book you wanted is available for free download instead of costing $12.

So long, private market. And with it, farewell to the dominant source of new content. We'll have killed the goose. Sure, there will still be some ways to encourage new work, but if you're relying on any particular one of them to replace the current system then I direct you to the debate we were having the other day about downloading music. I argued then, as I do now, that we can't count on indirect funding models to fully replace direct funding models without seriously handicapping the depth and breadth of the market.

Don't get me wrong, as much as I like Google I'm not thrilled about them being the de facto monopoly on digitized private content. If nothing else, this article is a valuable warning about the dangers of that. But it overextends itself by trying to leverage that fear into a justification for universal public access, in my opinion.
posted by Riki tiki at 11:16 AM on January 23, 2009


>remember that an absolutely enormous percentage of the works that Google is digitizing have almost no value. The ones that are out of print and out of copyright (~14%) are unprofitable and of little interest to volunteers and academics or else they would have been digitized already.

Easy on the sweeping generalizations there. They don't have enough value as perceived by those undertaking huge, expensive projects to digitize literature. I'm not terribly excited at the thought of scanning old equivalents of Danielle Steele novels either, but it is not up to individuals to decide the value of works of literature. People do actually buy those books, y'know.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 11:18 AM on January 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


The idea that it's "too late now" is a bit absurd. Laws can be changed.

I've always thought that that art should be paid for with taxpayer subsides rather then copyright. The fact is, computers and communications systems make the market superfluous for determining what art people want. Just keep track of what people like and make payouts based on that.
posted by delmoi at 11:25 AM on January 23, 2009


it is not up to individuals to decide the value of works of literature. People do actually buy those books, y'know.

No, people don't buy those books, at least not in sufficient quantity to keep them in print. That's why they are out of print. And people aren't even interested in looking at those books for free or else they would have been digitized.

Yes, there are exceptions: diamonds in the rough, forgotten classics, authors unappreciated in their time, etc. But those are very much the exception. The free market and academia are both very good at mining the past for profitable ideas, whether measured in dollars or tenure.

And it is entirely up to individuals to decide the value of works of literature; that's how the market for books works, it's how digitization projects like Gutenberg work, and it's how Google Book Search works. Google's business plan relies on keeping people on Google's websites so that Google can sell targeted ads, thus someone at Google decided to set the bar very, very low so that Google becomes a one-stop-shop for electronic books.
posted by jedicus at 11:28 AM on January 23, 2009


I've always thought that that art should be paid for with taxpayer subsides rather then copyright. The fact is, computers and communications systems make the market superfluous for determining what art people want. Just keep track of what people like and make payouts based on that.

So your suggesting that taxpayer funds be directed towards LOLCats, Goatse, and Rick Astley videos, then?
posted by Parasite Unseen at 11:31 AM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've always thought that that art should be paid for with taxpayer subsides rather then copyright...Just keep track of what people like and make payouts based on that.

That plan sounds good in theory, but it has several problems.

First, the property right aspects of copyright allow certain transactions that a mandatory license scheme does not. For example, how would GPL-style open source work under a mandatory license scheme?

Second, how do you effectively track what people like? You would need an all-pervasive DRM-like scheme for making sure artists were fairly compensated and that no one gamed the system.

Third, who decides the size of the total pool of money that gets doled out to artists? Right now, the market does. Do we just take the current market for copyrighted works and peg it to inflation? This runs into command economy problems that are probably intractable.
posted by jedicus at 11:34 AM on January 23, 2009


I've always thought that that art should be paid for with taxpayer subsides rather then copyright.

Copyright (government-granted monopoly on the expression of an idea) IS a taxpayer subsidy.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:50 AM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


So your suggesting that taxpayer funds be directed towards LOLCats, Goatse, and Rick Astley videos, then?

Uh, Rick Astley got a lot of money for his work back when it was new. For the rest, people are doing that stuff for free and generally not seeking copyright protection for it, so it would get made even without copyright laws.
posted by delmoi at 11:51 AM on January 23, 2009


Copyright (government-granted monopoly on the expression of an idea) IS a taxpayer subsidy.

Well kind of, but this would be replacing it with something more efficient.
posted by delmoi at 11:52 AM on January 23, 2009


Well kind of, but this would be replacing it with something more efficient.

I'm dubious that anything government-administered would be more efficient than... well, just about anything else.

Let's just trim the cultural monopoly down to where it was in the days of hand-operated printing presses, and encourage people to actually produce 'new works' instead of resting on their laurels.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:00 PM on January 23, 2009


Well, bad news for him, but people already have access to more knowledge than they care for. Wikipedia, Knol, the Public Library of Science, OpenCourseWare, Project Gutenberg, online art museums, and the various Patent Offices already maintain an enormous body of classical and modern knowledge that is easy to search and free to reuse. This is science, art, literature, and philosophy on a massive scale, all freely accessible at a library internet terminal or from home for a modest cost. Yet we do not see a new Enlightenment.

I think we *do* see a new Enlightenment, but only among the minority of "people" who can access this stuff, make use of it and care to create change. You've got to be rich enough to have internet access, leisure time, tools, etc to participate. And you've got that already, you are likely to be pretty happy with the status quo.

But for those few that meet these criteria, they are definitely doing stuff with it.
posted by DU at 12:02 PM on January 23, 2009


Because, as we all know, there was no ego amongst enlightenment scholars.

He's talking about Enlightenment principles, not the Enlightenment as a collection of individuals. Darnton knows whereof he speaks: he's one of the world's top five or so experts on the Enlightenment, and many of his books are about precisely the fact that knowledge-production was driven by profit-seeking and not high-minded public-spiritedness.
posted by nasreddin at 12:09 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


jedicus, you have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. For one thing, "valueless" and ephemeral literature is more valuable to anyone who's interested in the past (historians, literary scholars, philosophers...) than the tiny number of canonical books. The research I've done on the eighteenth century would be impossible if it weren't for digitization projects that aimed for quantity rather than quality: the texts I wrote about were minor, they were forgotten almost immediately after they were published, but they provide a better window into how people thought and experienced the world than any other resource, especially taken together.
posted by nasreddin at 12:14 PM on January 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


Which means that if we're at all interested in preserving the past, it's a crime to let old books disappear, no matter how artistically uninspiring they might be.
posted by nasreddin at 12:17 PM on January 23, 2009


Couldn't agree more nasreddin; recently downloaded Ti-ping Tien-kwoh by Augustus Lindley, the contemporary memoir-cum-polemic of an English naval officer so disgusted by the opium trade and British imperialism he chose to serve the Taiping. Long superceded by definitive works and would have been nigh-on impossible to access otherwise.
posted by Abiezer at 12:34 PM on January 23, 2009


Not to mention that our standards are, historically speaking, notoriously inconsistent. What would have happened if we'd have let Poe and Van Gogh and Bulgakov disappear into the dustbin of history?
posted by nasreddin at 12:53 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


The main concern he raises is that Google will cause the price of books to go up, in the same way academic journals have gone up in price because of the monopoly publishers hold.

However this argument is flawed. The reason is, unlike academic journals, books have a pre-existing used market. So if Google's monopolistic powers causes it to raise the price of digital books, the used book market would act as a counter-weight. Since the books already exist in the used marketplace, unlike journals which are brand new and can only be purchased through the publisher - which is how you get the $30,000 a year journals he talks about. Google does not have a monopoly on the books, even if it is the only one with digital access.
posted by stbalbach at 1:08 PM on January 23, 2009


However this argument is flawed. The reason is, unlike academic journals, books have a pre-existing used market. So if Google's monopolistic powers causes it to raise the price of digital books, the used book market would act as a counter-weight. Since the books already exist in the used marketplace, unlike journals which are brand new and can only be purchased through the publisher - which is how you get the $30,000 a year journals he talks about. Google does not have a monopoly on the books, even if it is the only one with digital access.

But if digitally-based work is going to be the cornerstone of future intellectual production, which is looking increasingly likely, then the fact that Google is the gatekeeper is going to be more and more significant. If Henry Ford was the only one allowed to make cars, then sure, people still could have used horse-drawn carriages, but that would not have been a long-term sustainable alternative.
posted by nasreddin at 1:13 PM on January 23, 2009


Very few people engage in self-education, much less the creation of new works.

I agree.

I hate copyrights. I think they're deeply harmful to society. And I believe "information wants to be free." However, solving problems of information access is a band-aid approach. The real problem is poor education. We're not living in an Enlightenment, because children are not enlightened in school. And when we debate education policy, we always think so small: should this or that subject be taught, etc. It's close to pointless, when the whole education system needs an overhaul.

If we raised kids without killing their natural curiosity... if we raised them to know to love building things... if we raised them to know how to find information (beyond typing searches into google)... if we hourly tickled their five senses as well as their minds... if we stopped training them to believe that happiness is comes through acquiring wealth... if we stopped forcing them to study things that didn't interest them... if we gave kids real, measurable, meaningful responsibilities...

IF we did all that, we'd wind up with grownups who would DEMAND access to information.
posted by grumblebee at 1:41 PM on January 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


So if Ben Franklin had tried to start the public library today, of course it would have been deemed a non-starter, since who wants the government doing something when it could be done by private industry. Then we'd wait another couple decades, and the various private libraries (which existed long before Franklin) would duke it out, consolidate, be bought by much larger companies, and start reaching out to the growing literate masses. Eventually, say, Carnegie -- pre-charity -- decides to go on a massive book-buying and building binge, thinking he'll make a mint supplying nearly every book in nearly every major city, charging not too much but getting a huge demand, while building his brand and maybe making some more with insert ads in every book. Not too long after this project gets started, though, the book publishers sue, and after much sturm und drang, Carnegie pays off the publishers, gets limited but nearly exclusive access to in-print books, and raises subscription rates. A vague hue and cry drifts up from the literarti, and no one else gives a damn. When it is mentioned later, those who care have mild debates about the tradeoffs between making copyrighted books more accessible, versus given Carnegie (yet another) monopoly.

Darnton's point: What happened to the god-damned public library? It could have been awesome.

He is mostly ignored, in favor of more mild debates about copyright, future pricing, monopoly, and the trustworthiness of Carnegie.
posted by chortly at 1:49 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


nasreddin, I wrote "It is fine and noble to collect this for posterity (and it will always be of some value to historians, anthropologists, sociologists, etc), but do not think that Google will be sitting on a gold mine of millions upon millions of priceless written treasures. The majority of valuable information is already being leveraged, whether as purchasable books or free, online content."

I do not see anything in that inconsistent with what you wrote about the value of historical ephemera and lesser-known works. My point about the low value of much of what Google is digitizing is that Google won't be able to lock up those works and charge absurd amounts for them precisely because they are of low value to most users. Historians, anthropologists, etc have nothing to worry about.

Remember also that most historically valuable material is outside copyright. The current copyright terms ends right about where information passes out of living memory (i.e., where history begins, more or less). Non-commercial digitization projects will always be able to duplicate Google's efforts if access costs go up.
posted by jedicus at 1:54 PM on January 23, 2009


chortly, I don't think anybody here has suggested that the government ought not fund a massive digitization project of its own. I think that could be a valuable public works project that could be distributed among existing public libraries. Libraries could be given scanners and assigned a portion of their collection to digitize. There are roughly 14,000 public, academic, armed forces, and government libraries in the United States (so, not counting school libraries or 'special libraries'). If they could each digitize just a book per week they could be done with the two million out of copyright books in Google's collection in 3 years. Very doable.

But a government effort would be limited to out-of-copyright materials unless it paid off copyright owners, just as Google has done. The difference is that the government could, in theory, force a cut-rate license through eminent domain. I don't think the government should go that route unless Google's charges prove unacceptable or its terms overly controlling, but I have no problem with a government project to digitize out-of-copyright works.
posted by jedicus at 1:59 PM on January 23, 2009


So if Ben Franklin had tried to start the public library today, of course it would have been deemed a non-starter, since who wants the government doing something when it could be done by private industry.

What? The original Library Company was a private subscription service. Even the New York Public Library was a private organization (or rather collection of private organizations) until the late 19th century. Everything we take for granted as a government service today, down to firefighting and education, used to be run by private cooperative and charitable organizations.

I do not see anything in that inconsistent with what you wrote about the value of historical ephemera and lesser-known works. My point about the low value of much of what Google is digitizing is that Google won't be able to lock up those works and charge absurd amounts for them precisely because they are of low value to most users. Historians, anthropologists, etc have nothing to worry about.


No, you're right. I misread you. Apologies.
posted by nasreddin at 2:02 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I would like to direct Mr. Darnton's attention to iTunes and BitTorrent. Then tell me again about how having one company responsible for the lion's share of digitized media sales will prevent me from having access to it and allow them jack up the prices as much as they want.

We don't need a National Digital Library, because we already have an International Digital Library. But we just call it the internet for short.
posted by straight at 2:18 PM on January 23, 2009


If I had a lot of money, I'd set up a trust to disseminate the best of our culture: recordings and videos of all public domain music and plays. It wouldn't have to be the best possible performances/productions: one can get the gist of a piece, its cultural meaning, even from an average production.

Again, the best performances, and highest fidelity production values are not necessary -- people are more than willing to listen to (relatively) low fidelity mp3s, or to view movies on cell phone screens, even bootleg movies filmed off a screen.

Indeed, by producing only good, not great, performances, and enticing new audiences to appreciate them, we'd create a renewed market for the very best performances -- something that symphonies and theaters facing declining audiences should take note of.

In an age of cheap storage and bandwidth, there's no reason that anyone with an internet connection shouldn't be able to immediately and freely download any work of Bach, some performance of any of Shakespeare's plays, a decent if not great Tristan and Isuelt.

I might begin by providing recording equipment to amateur, student, and community theater companies or symphonies. Since perfect quality is not a requirement, consumer-quality recording devices (even iPhones and cheap video cameras) should suffice. A small fee to offset some of the company's production costs, plus the rights to further package and sell the resulting product should suffice to find some takers, with the trust acquiring rights to provide the basic product for free on its servers.

Our cultural heritage should be available to all, and it's the best gift we can give our children. And it would revitalize popular interest in the arts.
posted by orthogonality at 2:26 PM on January 23, 2009 [2 favorites]


grumblebee, I'm with you on:

However, solving problems of information access is a band-aid approach. The real problem is poor education.

but not so much on

I hate copyrights. I think they're deeply harmful to society. And I believe "information wants to be free.".

Information can be free when my gas bill, food, and healthcare are all free. Until then, as an author and designer (who writes knitting books and sells single-pattern downloads, which, in my little corner of the niche internet, tend to get pirated just like MP3s), I'm going to have to stick up for my rights to use my work as I see fit, and copyright is the current mechanism by which I can enforce that legally. Otherwise, what's the point? Sure, I love my work, but if anyone can access it for free, it's no longer profitable for me to do. And by 'profitable' I mean "earning just enough to live on," not "Stephen King bought a yacht."

As a professional in my field, I am competing with people who ARE willing to give content away for free. And as a result, my content has to be BETTER. I pay technical editors, photographers, models, test knitters, my accountant...it is a business and a means of livelihood. I can't just give it away. A friend of mine in the same business calls the non-professionals who put out free patterns "dabblers." They don't invest in the resources I do to make my product as high quality as it is.

Can you still find out how to knit without buying anything of mine? Sure. Can you find out how to knit Rivulet (an example; my latest published pattern) without my pattern? Sure, if you're really talented and study the photos available on line. But the $6 you pay for it does not reflect any more than a minuscule amount of the time, materials and effort that went into creating it for public release, and that's why I have to be such a hardass about protecting my work.

When you start letting large governmental or corporate entities determine the manner in which your own work can be used, you get things like the Orphan Works Bill. At least Google tried to make good with the in-copyright authors whose works they'd scanned!
posted by bitter-girl.com at 2:36 PM on January 23, 2009


grumblebee: I hate copyrights. I think they're deeply harmful to society. And I believe "information wants to be free.".


bitter-girl: Information can be free when my gas bill, food, and healthcare are all free. Until then, as an author and designer (who writes knitting books and sells single-pattern downloads, which, in my little corner of the niche internet, tend to get pirated just like MP3s), I'm going to have to stick up for my rights to use my work as I see fit


Just so you know where I'm coming from, I'm a book author and theatre director.

bitter-girl, you and I are saying two different things. I'm claiming copyright is bad for society. As I understand it, you're saying copyrights are good for you. But you (and I) are not society. Maybe you and I should make a sacrifice for the common good. Maybe we're not willing to, but that doesn't change the fact that you and I are not society. We're part of it, but we're not it.

Let me give you an example: let's say you come up with a great idea for improving "Catcher in the Rye." In country A, you can't implement it, because you don't have rights to the text. This sucks for the thousands of readers who would benefit from reading your improved version, but it does help out the rights holder. In country B, the rights-holder loses out, which is sad for him, but everyone in the country gets to read your new, improved version. Which country's law most benefits society at large?

To counter my point, you can say "Sure, but if artists can't keep rights to their works, they won't be able to make money and so they'll quit producing. Then there will be no more art and society will suffer."

I don't believe that for a second. Art has existed as long has humans have existed. Art will always exist, whether people get paid for it or not. If artists stop getting paid, SOME of them will quit working. The ones left will be the ones who are so passionate about what they're doing, they don't care whether they get paid or not. I don't know whether I'd be one of those or not. I like having a nice apartment. It would be interesting to see.

I don't discuss this view very much, because if I got my wish, it would hurt me and most of my friends (other artists). Still, it is what I believe would be for the best. I also don't discuss it much, because... what's the point? We live in a capitalist world, and my utopia (or distopia, if you hate it) isn't going to happen. We ARE going to have at least some kind of copyright. We are not going to stop paying (all) artists for their work. (For the record, what I'd like to see is a culture in which you could retain rights if you kept a work private, which would have to be defined in some specific way. But as soon as you published it, it would go into public domain. I don't believe people's private diaries or love letters should be available to everyone. But if I put on a play, you should all be allowed to come see it for free.)

Still, every once in a while, I like to clear the air and call a spade a spade. I believe art is deeply important to society. I am an artist. I believe what I do is deeply important to society. I also want to be paid. But that doesn't mean that I should be paid. And it doesn't mean that society produces better art when artists are paid.

When groups of artists claim they should be paid more, they are being selfish. Not in a bad way. In the same way that teachers and secretaries and cops are being selfish when they claim they should be paid more. But it's mostly artists who claim that they should be paid because it will benefit society. No. Money you pay me benefits me, not society. Artist try to turn their selfishness into something grandiose. It's not: it's just garden variety, understandable human selfishness.
posted by grumblebee at 3:04 PM on January 23, 2009


But as bitter girl has said, the only way her art is available at all is that it is paid.

The gamble is that giving people incentive to create through a limited monopoly of their works will spur them to create and disseminate art. The fact that people could make money from the Lord of the Rings makes them produce the movie. Without the carrot, we get no rabbit.

Art will always exist, whether people get paid for it or not. If artists stop getting paid, SOME of them will quit working.

No one is arguing that. I am arguing that the amount of art will sharply decrease without capital to back it up. I remain unconvinced that the benefit of having all works freed matches the decrease in content that it would bring.
posted by zabuni at 3:51 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I guess my point was, had Carnegie pursued his libraries as traditional subscription services, he a) could have made quite a lot of money, and b) would have been praised for making many more books much more available than they otherwise would have been. He might well have been sued by book publishers, and we would then have been debating whether he should be allowed to buy and lend in-copyright books to his subscribers. As it was, his libraries were public, there were no law suits to any lasting effect (that I know of), and his libraries included in-copyright, in-print books with little controversy (that I know of; I'm no expert).

Thus by analogy, it seems too bad that we are now debating the merits of Google providing in-print books, its subscription rates for those books, and the drawbacks of monopoly, when we could have had a fully public system, free for all and including in-print/in-copyright books, just as we did with public libraries.
posted by chortly at 3:57 PM on January 23, 2009


>most historically valuable material is outside copyright. The current copyright terms ends right about where information passes out of living memory (i.e., where history begins, more or less).

What? We learned about the Cuban Missile Crisis when I was in high school and there's still plenty of people around who remember that. Events become historically valuable a lot more quickly than the Life + 70yrs or 125 years it takes for them to lose copyright protection.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 4:03 PM on January 23, 2009




What I meant was that the copyright term expires at about the same time that oral accounts are no longer available (i.e., when written records and the like become the only available sources). I mentioned it because it's one of the very few rational bases for the length of the modern copyright term, in my opinion.
posted by jedicus at 5:33 PM on January 23, 2009


But if digitally-based work is going to be the cornerstone of future intellectual production, which is looking increasingly likely, then the fact that Google is the gatekeeper is going to be more and more significant.

Google is digitizing pre-existing books (out of print books) - Google is not a gatekeeper, Google is not a publisher. The books exist outside of Google in physical form. Available in libraries and in the used marketplaces. The point of the article was to suggest Google would be like the academic journal world - whom are indeed gatekeepers and have monopolies on information. Google is not in that position and thus could not command high prices for access to the books, nor would it cause the prices of books to go up - even if its the only one with a digital copy. In fact the existence of a digital copy should make demand for out of print physical books go down, thus causing used book prices to drop. This is already happening for public domain books (pre-1923) since they are freely available in full on Google, Gutenberg, IA, etc.. there is less demand for physical copies of old books.

A comparable example would be JSTOR. They publish digital versions of academic journals. JSTOR is free to library users, just like Google Books. JSTOR has not caused the price of journals to go up. If anything, it's liberated information that otherwise was locked away and exspensive to access.
posted by stbalbach at 11:26 PM on January 23, 2009


And I believe "information wants to be free."

I used to work at a gym with a private training school attached. One day a vagrant wandered in on a lecture and casually took a seat.

The youngish lass who was the general dogsbody came over in a mad panic wanting advice.

So the boss goes over to kick him out and inform him that you have to pay money to be there. And he launches into this loud rant as he's being gently strongarmed out of there.

"WHAT?! You have to pay money to be here? I can't believe it I'm not leaving, don't… don't touch me, information should be free, free I say, freeeeeeee."
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:24 AM on January 25, 2009


To counter my point, you can say "Sure, but if artists can't keep rights to their works, they won't be able to make money and so they'll quit producing. Then there will be no more art and society will suffer."

No one's ever going to stop making art. If I wasn't doing this for a living, I'd still knit, sure. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd be able to screw around all day long and put out a million free patterns AND have the money to pay the technical people who also contribute to the product. Would this be great? Sure! I'd be the Big, Cool, Altruistic Knitting Designer.

(Would my fellow designers absolutely HATE me? Yes, because they didn't win the lottery, too, and they're still trying to make a living).

But what is my incentive to create these products, and invest the money into making them great, if I don't have the right to protect my work? To use your art as an example, if you decided you didn't need to be paid and were going to put on a big show, donating your services for the greater public good, that's all fine and dandy until the actors want to be paid. And the lighting director. And the theatre owner. Etc. Even if they all say "ok, I'll do it for free, too," I don't see how that's going to happen on a long-term basis.

It's one thing to do a one-off for a charitable purpose, and it's one thing to do community theatre without pay because you like doing it, it's your hobby, but that does not mean that professionals shouldn't work for pay. We don't live in a barter economy. This doesn't boil down to "should artists be paid for their work or not?" but "can artists do their art without some form of recompense?"

A friend of mine is a painter. Her husband told her to quit the part time job she had and concentrate on her work instead. She can do that only because he has a full time job and is willing to support her. Should she be paid for her end product? I think her husband's vote there would be 'yes,' since he works 40+ hours per week to help pay for her living expenses, her paints, the cost of shipping to galleries, etc.

When groups of artists claim they should be paid more, they are being selfish.

Protecting one's copyright is not necessarily claiming one should be paid MORE, but one should be paid, period.

Now, should Disney et al be allowed to extend their copyrights 10,000 years past the time they froze ol' Walt's head? No. But some kind of copyright is necessary, even if it's only 15 years or so.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 9:24 AM on January 25, 2009


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