I’ve been mulling over the topic of piracy and media consumption for several years. As a writer in the middle of developing a project with a web component, it’s of great interest to me whether or not it’s possible to make money creating a video series of ambition primarily for a digital download audience.
Lately, there’s been a lot of back and forth about the rights of the individual versus the rights of copyright holders, consumer convenience, dumb-ass big media companies, etcetera. There’s a lot of high-minded rhetoric on either side flying around, but in all the debate, I can’t help but feel that the concerns of individual copyright holders, be they artists, writers, filmmakers, or programmers, are being forgotten in all the angst over “big media.”
However, before I continue, I want to make four quick points so you know where I’m coming from.
(1) I’m not going to discuss large corporate media, since that of necessity addresses a whole set of issues that I think dilutes the fundamental issue of creator compensation. Instead, I want to focus on small-time, creator-distributed media, which I would like to think is the future of media. It’s always been my dream that we creators have an environment in which we can sell content directly to the audience. And technology could make that more feasible then ever.
(2) I believe we can all agree that DRM is a giant pain in the ass, and it’s not a credible answer. Also, I’m in favor of liberal fair-use policies. Individuals shouldn’t have to live in fear when creating mash-ups, remixes, and the like. Clear, universal policies with no repurcussions for non-commercial activities should be put into place.
(3) However, I firmly support copyright as an artist’s most effective, international, treaty-ratified protection against big media poaching an independent creator’s intellectual property. On the other hand, I think copyright needs to expire with no exceptions, and not be constantly re-extended for well-heeled corporations. If patents expire like clockwork for major pharmaceudical companies’ most expensive medications, then the Disneys of the world can let their copyrights expire, as well.
(4) Making it difficult for people to buy one’s content easily and affordably is probably stupid.
Okay, let’s talk about piracy.
As an author, I have no interest in pursuing criminal charges against folks that consume media I’ve created without paying. Personally, I make a distinction between simply copying a file, and enjoying the media therein. If everyone in the world copied the file of one of my books without reading it, I honestly wouldn’t care. Where I draw the line is when folks watch the movie, read the book, or listen to the song, and then don’t pay. That, I consider to be thoughtless behavior.
My main point is simple math. If a creator’s job is to create, then someone has to pay for that creator to keep doing what they’re doing. If the creator sucks and nobody much buys the thing, then it’s artistic darwinism and time to go get a day job. However, if the creator is terrific, and lots of folks listen to/watch/read/play the thing without paying, then that deliberately avoids rewarding artists for doing good work, and is a tragedy regardless of your thoughts about free culture.
Big media wants to protect the profits of copyright holders by enforcing draconian laws and technological boondoggles, none of which I support because these schemes go overboard and infringe on genuine civil liberties, and from a technological perspective promise to cause far more problems then they would solve.
Rather, I think the fundamental issue at play is people’s attitudes about media consumption, and about paying the artists’ price for what they read/watch/hear/experience.
Making money off of digital media is a numbers game. Folks expect low prices, so the aggregate is important. The more people decide to download media file X and then pay the creator for it, the more money the creator has. It’s that simple.
If you’re not planning on paying for a piece of media you’ve listened to/watched/played/read, then yes, you can provide free publicity for the creator, spreading the word on Twitter and your blog and Facebook and by texting all your friends. And if you’re dead broke, that’s cool. It’s genuinely helpful. But if you’re not broke, at the end of the day you could have done that and given them five dollars. Or two dollars. Or 99¢.
You can argue that copying without payment is not theft, that nothing’s been taken, that the file being duplicated makes more! And I’ll agree with you. Copying a file and then using it without payment is, to my mind, no more an act of larceny then refusing to toss a buck in the cup of a street musician after standing there listening to their whole song. But it is miserly to do so if you have the money to spend. And rude.
At the end of the day, digital media distribution makes filmmakers, musicians, writers, programmers, and other creators of mass distributable content the equivilant of buskers standing by the side of the street. You can enjoy what we make for free, and it’s up to you whether or not you pay us. And whether you as a creator love this new reality or hate it, that’s the truth.
However, it’s disingenuous for tech pundits to stand by the side of the road and say that figuring out how to make a profit is the artists problem, or to suggest that in the future perhaps it’s simply not possible for creators to make a living doing nothing but creating.
To me, the argument is not whether copying media freely is right or wrong–it’s an issue of manners. Of respect for the creator’s time, and the resources that were put into the making of that thing you’ve decided to copy to your digital device in order to upload into your brain.
If you want a more self-serving reason to fork out cash for digital media you enjoy, consider whether or not you want that creator to keep creating. For anyone planning a media project of any sort of ambition, the math regarding whether or not it can be done is simple.
How much folks will pay the artist
How much it costs to make
Whether or not the artist goes broke
Keep in mind that not every type of media you might want to download is created solely as a function of one person’s time. In the case of a film, a whole lot of resources can go into even the humblest 5 minute project. Paying other artists, actors, buying materials for sets and props, paying for insurance, renting equipment, buying bags of clothes-pins, municipal shooting permits, the list can be quite long.
And when it comes to costs, time must be assigned a value. No matter what kind of media we’re talking about, the artist’s time is worth money, and it’s a mistake to think otherwise.
I also believe that artists do their best work when they have the ability to focus on what it is they’re doing, as opposed to working on their thing at 11pm at night after spending all day waiting tables, pumping gas, or writing backend database code. Creation is a job, too, that benefits from a fresh mind and well-rested energy.
So, if you want your favorite artist to be able to focus on what it is they’re creating for you to consume, it would behoove you to toss five or ten bucks into their project. If you’ve got it. And if you don’t have it, keep them in mind when you do.
It’s the nice thing to do.