Law in the Internet Society
-- AdamMcclay - 21 Nov 2008

Of the conversations we have had, none had particularly raised a skeptical eyebrow for me until our discussion of non-functional zero-marginal-cost goods. As I followed it, the argument seemed to be that the question of how the goods – in our example, music – are distributed is wholly divorced from the question of how the producer gets paid. I accept this. Putting aside for the moment the question of economically compensating the creator of a non-functional good, it is certainly the case that anarchism in distribution will make the good available to more people more quickly. Two easy examples are the nominally legal Rapidshare, which is better than iTunes or a record store, and Project Gutenberg, which has demonstrated that even books can be transformed to a frictionless, zero-marginal-cost form.

But as it stands today, the distribution of the goods still starts with someone paying money for the right to consume them. Someone subscribes to the Showtime network and records new episodes of Californication in order to put them on Rapidshare; Project Gutenberg still obtains a hard copy of each book. However, with the abolition of copyright, this first step would be eliminated. Musicians would put upload their songs directly to Rapidshare and its ilk; authors would type their novels directly into Project Gutenberg. My question is, why would they do this? Artists need to eat too. If no one need compensate the artist for his work, how does the artist buy lunch?

Really there are two responses to this. First, maybe the artist buys lunch with the wages that he earns outside of his art--from his job as a public school teacher, say, or as a barista in some ubiquitous Seattle-based coffee shop. In this case, then the inquiry ends: we do not need to support that artist, because he supports himself by selling tangible goods or services. This, without more, is not a particularly desirable solution. We should want artists to be able to support themselves solely through their art--this would allow them the time and focus to develop themselves, as well as removing any financial disincentive to become an artist in the first place. So, the second, and better, response to the "buying lunch" question is that we need for people to pay the artist voluntarily, without being required to either by law or to prevent the starving artist from starving. And we know that this happens, to an extent, in the world already. We discussed examples were provided of free cultural and moral products that are supported by anonymous voluntary donations: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Public Radio, Wikipedia.

I only wonder if this system cannot be improved, beyond simply eliminating copyright. It is not my intention to suggest that the voluntary sector as it exists now is incapable of supporting artists, either aggregated, as in NPR, the Met, or PayPal? aggregating the payments of donors, or otherwise, as in my friends Pete and J, whom I believe are managing to get by on the proceeds of their band, touring the country and taking up residencies in Lower East Side venues that lose money on them. What I do suggest is that the current system should be more centralized, with stricter assurances that an artistic meritocracy exists. I imagine some modernized version of the patronage system that prevailed during the Italian Renaissance. Today, instead of the Medici family, the patrons might be non-profit organizations, funded, as non-profits are, by a mix of tax dollars, major contributions from wealthy private citizens, and voluntary contributions from ordinary citizens. Artists, if they wanted to be paid for their art, would need to apply to be sponsored by one of these patrons--a process similar to applying for a grant. The application could include samplings of the work, and an explanation of why it deserves sponsorship.

The advantage of this system is twofold. First, it does not prevent any non-sponsored artist from creating art and distributing it for free, either by supporting themselves producing tangible goods, or by eking out a living, as Pete and J do, from individual, non-aggregated voluntary contributions. In this respect, the patronage system is no different than any other system that currently aggregates donations and funds artists. But I believe the second advantage is what sets the patronage system apart. With only one or a handful of patrons, there would be centralized switchboard for compensating artists financially, while at the same time serving a gatekeeper function with respect to quality. An artist with the patronage of one of these organizations would be a good artist, and fully supported. Other artists may support themselves in the slaughterhouse while developing their work in order to gain patronage; in the meantime, consumers are free to enjoy those artists’ work while the artists themselves enjoy the fruits of attribution. This patronage system seems like a way to make the ideas from our class discussion even more feasible.

Perhaps you could distinguish between your "patronizing" non-profits and PayPal? aggregating the payments of donors. Or maybe "gatekeeping for quality" turns out to mean getting for donors what they want to support. In which case the fiscal intermediary and the editor with a nearly mechanical eye on the popular consensus are the same. To the extent that they are different, their differences do not preclude mutual simultaneous existence. Which means that these and many other forms of aggregative support for creative endeavor will exist.

Which is why, as I keep saying, this "how will artists get paid?" question is less interesting than it looks. You have struggled all the way from skepticism to believing you have invented the answer by taking one of a thousand relatively short and easy roads. Amazon selling DRM-free music is taking another.

At a minimum I think you should strengthen the essay by taking another look at the issue raised above: whether you are really saying anything other than that intermediaries can amplify the coherence of donations, as NPR and the Metropolitan Museum and Carnegie Hall do now. That might lead you to asking whether the voluntary sector is as small as you think it is. That in turn might cause a major rethink. But how far you want to go is up to you.

I am working on addressing the comments you've made, but I'm not finished yet.


Webs Webs

r3 - 03 Dec 2008 - 23:18:04 - AdamMcclay
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