The Future of Content, Part I: How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going

One thing the recent brouhaha over SOPA has done is raise awareness of the entertainment industry’s long-standing efforts to line their pockets by restricting what everyone else can do on the Internet, a practice in place long before anyone had even heard of SOPA, as anyone familiar with the term “DRM” knows all too well.

At first blush, the matter seems simple: Content producers can’t expect to make money off their work if anyone can download it off the Internet for free. If no one can make money off their work, no one will bother to create work, so pirates are essentially free-riding off of others’ hard work and essentially robbing creators of the ability to continue making the work they’re enjoying. In fact, one thing the debate over SOPA and other anti-piracy efforts has been missing has been suggestions from the other side to crack down on piracy without hindering the Internet for everyone else, which has made it easier for the entertainment industry to portray the anti-SOPA protesters as a bunch of free-riding geeks. Fortunately, there are such efforts out there.

But the problem with this line of reasoning is that plenty of people are making money from people downloading their work off the Internet for free, often in ways the entertainment industry precisely wants to outlaw. And that points the way to a more fundamental issue, which is that none of this would be an issue if creative works didn’t completely break the rules of economics in the first place. The only reason this has become apparent is that the method of delivery has changed.

Economics is based on the principle of scarcity: there are only X number of things to go around, so we have to find some way to ration them out to the people who need them. You may find issue with the way capitalism does so, but that is neither here nor there. The point is that for physical things, this principle holds true, a simple consequence of the laws of physics; we don’t yet have a machine to make something from nothing. But for creative work, the value is not in anything physical at all, but in information (for lack of a better term), unless you subscribe to the “I like the look and feel of print” theory. If this information could be duplicated and disseminated completely independently of a physical context, the principle of scarcity would be completely irrelevant, and it would be impossible to use it to assign a price to creative works without imposing the sort of artificial constraints the entertainment industry has and wants to impose.

Creative works have been created for thousands of years in spite of this condition. Whether a religious ceremony, telling history in an epic poem, or just telling stories around the campfire, or even making a new contraption to make life easier, people have created and sustained art of all types without seeing any sort of compensation from it. While I have serious doubts about capitalist economics’ contention that the only reason people do anything is to make money or its equivalent (which is neither here nor there), nowhere is this more apparent than with creative works. Apart from the possibility (whose truth I don’t know of either way) that admission was charged to Greek or Roman plays, no one made any material gains from the vast corpus of creative works humanity created for thousands of years until very recently. They made creative works to perpetuate or sustain a religion, to bind together a culture, to form social bonds, or even merely because they had nothing better to do.

At first, creative works were passed from one person to another the only way they could be, through performance, whether a theatrical performance or re-enactment, or through someone simply reciting the poem. Other people could then memorize the performance, whether through training or simply witnessing the performance themselves, and then perform it themselves for a new audience. This crude approach kept the work as pure information and probably worked better than it’s often given credit for, but it did have a number of drawbacks, such as the potential for the work to be unknowingly edited repeatedly in a long-term game of telephone, or even eliminated entirely if outside forces put a stop to the performance. The development of writing gave creative works a sort of permanence, but was so difficult in both materials and reproduction that the problem of scarcity swung in the complete opposite direction: now only one copy of each work could exist, kept in vast libraries just to ensure the work continued to exist at all.

But like a soul bound to corporeality and all the suffering that comes with material existence, writing also bound creative works to physical objects, and when the printing press made reproduction relatively trivial, brought them into the economic world. The availability of creative works was now pinned to how much paper they were printed on. But the paper was interchangeable; the same blank sheet of paper could conceivably hold a page of the Bible, or of Don Quixote, or of The Wealth of Nations. Creative works were, at their core, still pure information, even if they needed paper devoted to them to be transmitted. You can’t pop an orange into Calvin’s duplicator and get another orange for free. You can put a piece of paper into a copy machine and get another piece of paper with the same writing on it that’s for all intents and purposes just as good as the original, or even copy down whatever is on the paper yourself and print any number of copies of it.

So it was inevitable that intellectual property laws started to arise less than half a century after the publication of The Wealth of Nations, initially in the form of patents that protected innovation, later in the form of copyright laws that protected other forms of creative works. Both laws essentially said that whoever came up with a creative idea first had the exclusive right to disseminate or exploit it; anyone else doing so was breaking the law. If such laws didn’t exist, anyone who had an idea would benefit everyone, but the person who originally had the idea wouldn’t get anything for coming up with it, at least not directly. These laws didn’t create any major problems, because even infringing works were bound to corporeality and physical objects. All that was needed was to confiscate those physical objects.

The state of affairs created by the printing press held for nearly half a millennium. Then more modern technologies – radio and television – came along. These technologies meant that, in theory, creative works were liberated from physical objects. A single performance could be broadcast to an audience far larger than could have ever seen it in person, and a single radio or television set would allow you to see or hear many, many performances over the course of its lifetime. In practicality, each performance ran into the same issues that befell the original oral tradition: in order to be replicated outside a single moment, they needed to be recorded for posterity on to some sort of physical object. Still, because one device could pay for many performances at no extra charge, the physical objects were no longer necessary to enjoy the performance itself, so they couldn’t have a price attached to them for content producers to make money off of. So content producers (and legislators) flipped the relationship, making the large audience itself the product that they could sell to corporations looking to advertise.

That wasn’t the end of the problems created by radio and television. One of the bigger issues came with the advent of the VCR, which suddenly gave households everywhere the ability to copy performances, even if only onto a single physical object without much room on it. It was a far more restricted sort of copying than that which threatened books, but it still caused movie and television studios to panic and threaten all sorts of legal action, for a while at least. On the whole, though, the system that emerged out of the invention of radio and television remained stable and worked for all parties for half a century. Then the Internet came along and broke everything. Finally, creative works were divorced from physical objects once and for all, and could be disseminated far and wide as pure information.

On a computer, creative works exist as a file, as X number of bytes stored on a hard drive. This file can then be placed on a server on the Internet. When someone wants to have that file, their computer reads the file off of the server, and can write its own version of the same file automatically. It is more trivially easy than ever to make copies of a creative work, potentially even as easy as dragging a file from one folder to another while holding the “Ctrl” key, or right-clicking on an image and pressing “Save As”. All the work is done by the computer, in not a whole lot of time either. It’s easy to see why trying to fight this process and maintaining a system designed for a world where the availability of creative works is bound to physical objects and broadcast spectrum seems like a losing battle by people trapped in the past.

What motivation can there be to create creative works when they are travelling as pure information? The key is to go back to those thousands of years where people created art without any sort of monetary compensation. Looking at the vast corpus of work that humanity created before the invention of the printing press, it’s absurd to claim that no one would produce anything creative if they couldn’t get paid for it. The absurdity lies in the very notion of creativity; creativity is an expression of self, not a job like any other cubicle job. The laws of economics, combined with centuries of creative works being bound to physical objects, has blinded us to this simple fact, but the Internet has flung open the curtains and exposed it for all to see. Not that monetary compensation is completely irrelevant, of course; even a creative endeavor can take up so much time and resources to create it becomes something like a job, and doing something for the fun of it, for better or worse, doesn’t have much room in today’s money-centric society. Is it possible for a creator to create something they feel like creating and still fill the need for money when the laws of economics are turned upside down?

It can be done. One option may be to charge just enough that the added convenience of not pirating outweighs the monetary cost, a fair price to the consumer. This is the idea behind the “micropayment” notion that rears its ugly head every so often, and while it’s an appealing notion, it’s one most studios are likely to recoil in horror from, and one that hasn’t worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future. An age where people are paying just a few cents for creative works is one many of the companies distributing those works – serving as middlemen – have no place in. For certain media, though, it can work and in fact is working relatively well; iTunes has made it the norm in music, while others, such as the army of webcomics artists, attract readers for free and make money on advertising and merchandise. For anyone wondering how extensible these strategies are, recently the comedian Louis CK decided to produce his own comedy special and make it available on the Web without any of the restrictions a large company would impose for $5, and proceeded to make over a million dollars in less than two weeks, with any pirating proving to be minimal.

Given these circumstances, where it is indeed possible for artists to profit from having their works online, often at terms more favorable to both them and the consumer than what the entertainment industry would impose, there is no longer any excuse to fear the Internet killing off the industry, rendering measures like SOPA the very definition of overkill. Yet the industry has shown no signs of learning in the past. Therefore, I am calling for a boycott by all consumers and producers of creative works of any entity that seeks in any way to restrict and kill off the Internet rather than embracing it. I also call on the entertainment industry, in order to be exempt from this boycott, to sign a statement indicating their embrace of the Internet and the cessation of any efforts to restrict it. Although I do not wish to encourage piracy, I will say that it is acceptable to consume work from an entity that is trying to restrict the Internet so long as they do not receive any money from it and so long as you do not buy any products because they were advertised therein.

There are plenty of people out there producing top-notch entertainment on the Web and through other channels, often without any help from the old entertainment industry, if you know where to look. In music, it can be as simple as being more discriminatory with your selections. Stopping support for the movie industry is substantially harder, but there are independent producers out there that don’t put up as many barriers to entry as they can and sometimes even make their movies freely available on the Internet, and if you really need the experience of a movie theater, there are smaller theaters, likely in your own backyard, that aren’t beholden to the big studios. No medium has not at least started to colonize the Internet, almost always without the help of the old corporate leaders in their industries. You may even find a new favorite work.

It is also high time to overhaul copyright law to bring it into the twenty-first century so it no longer reinforces the entertainment industry’s idea that creative works are just like any other physical object to be bought and sold. Many if not most of the producers publishing their work on the Internet have left our antiquated copyright laws behind and have sought to embrace more liberal alternatives more suited to the nature of the Internet, such as the Creative Commons concept.

I acknowledge that the entertainment industry probably cannot simply flip a switch and suddenly know everything they need to know about making money on the Internet and change their thinking to embrace it. But any smart entertainment company had better start reading the multitude of books about it, and/or hiring people who can ease them through the transition, right quick, or else they’re just another company who tried to fight a new development that would make their existing business model obsolete instead of adapting to move into the new field it created.

A key theme in this series is going to involve the effect of taking out the middleman. Our world is littered with remnants of the days when creative works were tied to physical objects and broadcast spectrum – middlemen that could publish and market the work and broadcast it to the masses. These middlemen are fossils now, an incongruous presence in our age that nonetheless have been working very hard to maintain their relevance. Not all of them are completely unnecessary – no “online strategy” would ever be sufficient to produce something like Avatar – but in an age with no “barriers to entry” for any creative work, a smart creator knows better than to sign the sort of “deal with the devil” they represent. Perhaps that’s the real reason why the entertainment industry seemingly wants to kill off the Internet: they know that even if their products will continue being made, they themselves may already be extinct.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] don’t mean to denigrate a group of creators that understand how the Internet works a lot better than most big media corporations, with or without the Kickstarter. If PA can convince those big media corporations to embrace the […]

  2. […] rank and file. Maybe I’m just naïve (support in Congress and opposition among the public to SOPA was, after all, largely bipartisan), but it would be hard for me to deal with it if this turned out […]

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