“Shouldn’t Artists Be Paid?” It Depends

by Kevin Carson
“Shouldn’t Artists Be Paid?” It Depends

Recently someone on an email discussion list I follow pointed out that authors or publishers of copyrighted pieces may be reliant on royalty income for their subsistence. The alternative to proprietary information might be that “only people with income from other sources (such as academic salaries) [would] be able to make their voices heard.”

I can’t speak for anyone else, but every single thing I write is freely available for unlimited reproduction. My book royalties generally average from $100-200 a month, with the occasional outlier of $50 or $300. I earn another $100-150 a month writing for Center for a Stateless Society (on a Creative Commons 3.0 license) depending on how much readers donate that month. I also get an occasional $400 or $500 every few months for writing something for a print periodical. I was surprised to learn from a friend in academia that this actually wasn’t bad compared to what most university faculty earn in royalties — almost nobody in academia, even in the days before easily replicable digital media, made enough from writing alone to live on.

So the dependence of most creators on “income from other sources” is actually part of the way things are right now, under proprietary culture. Almost nobody, right now, in the traditional proprietary information industries, makes much money. Most of the revenue streams flow to gatekeeper corporations. Only a lucky few blockbuster writers/acts can live off their writing, music, etc.

File-sharing may have seriously hurt music company revenues, but it’s mainly the companies themselves — not the artists — who have taken the hit. Disintermediation is bad for middlemen — so what else is new?

What I like about the free culture model is that it makes it possible for little guys like me outside the professional intellectual class to earn a non-negligible income stream from writing without the permission of gatekeeping institutions. I suspect the same is true for local garage bands who can now supplement their income playing in bars by marketing their music directly over the Internet (thanks to desktop editing technology that once would have required a million-dollar studio). I also suspect that people like me and that garage band can much more effectively market our own work virally, within niches we know better than anybody else, than an academic publishing house or record company could.

I find in my case that the natural rents accruing to being first-to-market, name recognition, and the transaction costs of setting up a competing version of my books (which anyone is free to do) are enough to bring me that income. It’s possible to download facsimiles of any of my books from The Pirate Bay, but the hard copy version for sale through Amazon and from my own POD publisher, show up on the first page of search results. And such advantages of authenticity, convenience, name recognition, etc., are something worth making a modest payment for, for all except the most time-rich and money-poor.

If anything, I suspect the free PDF versions online are free advertising for people who would never have bought the book at all without a chance to metaphorically “thumb through” it.

And I haven’t even touched on the whole “Freemium” thing that Chris Anderson and Mike Masnick write about: using free content to promote naturally scarce adjunct services that *can* be monetized (e.g. Linux distros giving away software free and then selling customization and tech support services).

As my friend Katherine Gallagher (@zhinxy) argues on Twitter, “art, music, and literature existed for many centuries before modern copyright law. If your business model requires artificial scarcity and illogical legal violence to keep the money coming in, it deserves to fail.”

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3 thoughts on ““Shouldn’t Artists Be Paid?” It Depends

  1. “What I like about the free culture model is that it makes it possible for little guys like me outside the professional intellectual class to earn a non-negligible income stream from writing without the permission of gatekeeping institutions.”

    Can’t complain at that. If there was no copyright then Hollywood couldn’t churn out all those retarded movies to the masses which are often loaded with political messages.

    Trouble is, through our taxes, we still fund multitudes of unworthy state-approved artists:

    “TAXPAYERS are being short-changed and artistic merit is being dragged through the mud by the culture of state-funded writing in Wales, says one Swansea-born novelist.”

    Not to mention the BBC licence levy.

  2. Carson misses the point by using himself as an example.

    Kevin Carson is a political writer, a polemicist. His purpose in writing is to propagate a message. In this regard, he is in the same business as advertising. Companies don’t sell adverts. They pay to have them seen; indeed, the more copying of an advert the better, because more people see it. The purpose of creating an ad is not to make money from the ad itself, but to prosper from the propagation of its message (whether financially by selling products, or ideologically by propagating an ideology).

    Creative works are different. All a Superman comic has is the comic itself. It is not created for a meta-purpose. The comic is the product, whereas for Kevin his writing is advertising for his product (his political ideals). These are two entirely different things.

    The question, as I always say, comes down to this. If you want production, something has to pay for it. If you want people to spend $200M on a movie production, they need to recoup that $200M, plus some profit, or they won’t make the movie. This is a very basic principle of how trade works. Even Kevin must understand this.

    Kevin also comes out with the myth that “all the money goes to corporations”. The reality is that the great mass media/copyright era- the 20th century- produced more media than all of prior history combined and in so doing provided employment for thousands of writers, artists, actors, musicians, technicians and other trades. A movie that costs $100M has spent $100M, which all ends up as income for other people. Numerous musicians have had successful careers, and some have become very rich indeed. My brother in law has spent his life as a working drummer, much of it session work. All funded by people purchasing product- records, movies, novels, comics, etc.

    Now this often gets denounced as a utilitarian argument- and maybe it is, but every political discussion has at least an element of utilitarianism to it, since ordinary people want to know about outcomes- but Kevin is making a utilitarian argument in his article, so in this context at least we must discuss outcomes.

    I will add my usual challlenge; copyright law does not prevent anyone, at the present time, creating works and giving them away for free. Anyone can make a blockbuster sci-fi film, dump it onto filesharing and usenet, and ignore copyright.

    But they do not. They do not do it because they cannot afford it. Because output requires income. It requires income to pay your actors and key grips and costume makers and CGI artists and all the others, who need an income to buy food and pay rent on their homes.

    If you don’t like copyright, just go and create and ignore it. And in so doing, you may learn that selling your own production is not a “rent” at all, but just how trade works. Kevin believes that copyright is a “state monopoly” but of course this is codswallop. It is a defined property right like any other and as such the basis of property in a market economy.

    No property, no market, no production. The reason every communism fails.

    “There was music before copyright”. Sure there was. And all that was needed was the patronage of an aristocrat. Is that what we want to go back to? Great composers reduced to whoring themselves around the aristocracy? I prefer the property rights, myself.

  3. I know of one CGI movie that was made entirely by voluntary contributions (Damnatus) – they called it not a ‘low budget movie’, but a ‘no budget movie’. Ironically they couldn’t publish it due to some vague German copyright legislation.

    Jeff Minter was one of the first independent game software developers to use shareware and he claims that voluntary contributions saved his company.

    I think we place too much value on contemporary media, most the media I now enjoy is either fan-made or no longer marketable due to its age.

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