Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Must we give away digital creative works?

I've been thinking about this a lot recently, spurred on by the recent Fran Ten podcast, this David Pogue post, and most recently a thoughtful post by Scott Goodson based on this column by economist Paul Krugman.

The upshot of Krugman's argument, referencing Esther Dyson's prediction from the early '90's, is that digital creative works will become free, and creative artists will have to make their money from "ancillary" projects, such as touring, personal appearances, licensing, etc.

If this turns out to be true (and the music industry is approaching this state right now), then it has a lot of negative ramifications for the future of creativity.

First off is the fairness question. Here is a simplified digital media value chain:

  • Digital distributors (i.e., ISPs like Comcast) make money through subscriptions
  • Directories and aggregators (like Google) make money through advertising
  • Creators make... nothing?

While the structure of technology allows this to happen, it's hard to look at this picture and see it as fair. I agree that DRM sucks, but is the solution "pay what you want"--a virtual tip jar?

Furthermore, if creating a work of art cannot in itself make money, it will then be difficult to invest much in that creation. While that may allow bloggers to continue (though I wouldn't turn down a few bucks for my work if that were possible), it doesn't bode well for musicians or moviemakers, and, soon, book authors.

If I can make money in personal appearances but not by writing, I will have to limit my writing time in order to, you know, pay the mortgage.

If a band can make money touring but not through selling CDs, they will be unlikely to spend much time in the recording studio, or to spend money on studio effects or gear. Perhaps they will instead simply tape their concerts and compile albums from the live sessions.

If a moviemaker cannot make money from her films because they are freely available on the web, she will have difficulty using any approach other than Dogme 95 in order to reduce costs. And do we want to see Dogme 95-style movies all the time?

The irony is that time put into making money takes away from time to create. Therefore, the output from our best artists is less. Is that progress?

Perhaps this is offset somewhat by the "long tail" of creators enabled by new technology. But I would trade 1000 bad "Nude" remixes for one new album by an artist I really like.

(Photo: pro-copying logo from

Related Posts:
Shop Talk Podcast #9 - Fran Ten of West Indian Girl on today's music business
How will musicians get paid in the 21st century?

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NW Guy said...

I've seen similar threads to this; it appears that the creative aspects are an investment in lead generation, with the live appearances being the close of the sale.

This may work for musicians but has roadblocks in other avenues; how many people will pay for a bookreading?

John Caddell said...

NW Guy, to me that's the point precisely. If "creative aspects are an investment in lead generation," instead of the essence of the business, then it's not a good omen for the quality of creative product.

I wish we could find a reasonable way to compensate people for their creativity. That should result in more of it.

Anonymous said...

Every creative around me is in a state of anxiety because none of us really know where to go from here.

The one real positive thing about all of this, is we have lots of time to be creative and come up with a solution that will give us the ability to regain control of our futures and go out to eat again! Watch out!

Calion said...

I'm not really sure what the big problem here is. We leave copyrights in place (tho' I would favor a GREATLY reduced copyright period) and enforce them as is feasable, so that there cannot arise an iTunes Store of pirated work. Then emulate the iTMS. Have quality sites that either sell or lease media (pay per download or pay per view) at a reasonable price. If the price is low enough and the convenience and polish is high enough, many (most?) non-teenagers, that is, people with money to spend in the first place, will prefer to pay for their media than hunt around for it in the dusty corners of the Internet. I, certainly, always check for an iTunes version of a song before looking on Gnutella.

Besides, people will always pay to go see a movie (first TV, then Cable, were supposed to kill movie theaters too, remember?) or hold a physical book, at least until somebody develops an e-book reader as compelling as an iPod (Kindle, you are NOT it).

John Caddell said...

Calion, you write that "If the price is low enough and the convenience and polish is high enough, many (most?) non-teenagers, that is, people with money to spend in the first place, will prefer to pay for their media than hunt around for it in the dusty corners of the Internet."

I grew up in the era before DRM and the iTunes store, never mind Napster or even CDs. And I never spent as much money on music as I did when I was a teenager. For me, after cashing my paycheck from my after school job every week meant a trip to the record store and buying two or three albums.

Young people are the biggest consumers of music, and if they won't pay for music, the industry is in trouble no matter how polished the stores are.

And I really don't care about the industry. I care about the artists. Because if they don't get paid, they won't make as much music. And that's a loss.

By the way, I do agree with your desire for limited-term copyright. Having crazy long copyright terms hurts artists as well as consumers.