The Economy Of Content Without Valuing IP
I just listened to Lance Weiler’s most recent podcast of This Conference Is Being Recorded. It was an interview with Nina Paley, the creator (I use creator since she is the writer, director, animator and producer) of the remarkable film SITA SINGS THE BLUES. In the interview Nina provides a protracted explanation of why she has released the film under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License and her opinions about copyright, IP ownership and revenue. I strongly recommend listening to the conversation.
I have generally held the belief that content creators should have the right to control the means and methods of the distribution of their content, should they so choose. That being said, I have had a challenging time resolving, in my own mind, the parallel ideas of content being shareable and creators profiting from their work. I get concerned about a lot of these conversations ignoring the legitimate right of creators to define certain terms of the engagement with their work and also that somehow, as “artists”, we should forego compensation for our work. Nina helped me clarify some of these ideas in her framing her reasoning behind the release of SITA.
I think before going too much further I should explain a little bit about Creative Commons licenses for those that are unfamiliar. Creative Commons licenses are the middle ground between no rights reserved (public domain) and all rights reserved (copyright); they are, for all intents and purposes, “some rights reserved”. The licenses come in a variety of flavors, including ones which require attribution or that prohibit commercial reuse of the work covered (this blog is covered by a creative commons attribution license).
Often, in the argument for a redefinition (or elimination) of copyright, there is the assertion that all content should be free and many proponents of this view have embraced the Creative Commons however, the creative commons license system is a control of rights and the CC licenses are built on the foundation of copyright. You must have control of the content in order to assert the restrictions that a CC license entails. The requirements for attribution, or the refusal to allow me to make money off of my remix of your work (if under a non-commercial CC license) is as much of a restriction as a record label’s control of synch rights to music. I will cede that the intentions of CC licenses are perceived as more altruistic (and they generally are) but they require copyright to function.
This is not to say that the copyright system is not in need of some fundamental rethinking. The idea of copyrights extending for decades beyond the life of the creators seems deeply antiquated and overly restrictive. However, if an artist chooses to make a single print of their work that will be valued far beyond on the nominal value of a single print in the context of many prints (ie: a limited run of 1 versus an unlimited run) then that artist has that right (in my opinion), for a period of time.
As an aside, the Creative Commons notion also assaults the concept of the ‘original’. Is there any value to the original Adele Bloch Bauer I that Klimt painted by his own hand? The aspiration of the CC movement seems, if unintentionally, to destroy any notion of the original. Somewhere Baudrillard is laughing.
That all being said, I think that Nina makes a very interesting, if self-conflicting, point about how content creators can be compensated for the intellectual property they create. On her website, Nina’s justification for making the content free (something she interestingly chose to do only after discovering she could not afford to keep the rights herself) is as follows:
I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you. Like all culture, it belongs to you already, but I am making it explicit with a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. Please distribute, copy, share, archive, and show Sita Sings the Blues. From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.
Nina goes further in her conversation with Lance, asserting that everything belongs to everyone since all ideas stand on the shoulders of other ideas. Because of this, it is not reasonable to charge for content since it is the property of all mankind. Taking this as as supposition, the case is then made by Nina that it is reasonable to charge for materials (like prints and DVDs) that have empirical costs of their own and it is acceptable to mark up those costs for profit. Here, I think, is a slight error of omission in the logic.
The omission is the justification for marking up the costs of those materials. That markup does not represent any intrinsic value of the materials but, rather, it represents the value of labor. In fact, the ability to charge a “profit” on material containing IP is due to the valuation of labor.
The argument could be drawn that the variable net charge in all economies is, in fact, labor.
- We are willing to pay someone for labor on it’s own (labor): eg someone hanging wallpaper in your home.
- We are willing to pay someone for materials that were laborious to create (labor + materials): eg glue and brushes used to hang the wallpaper.
- We are willing to pay someone for materials that were created by someone’s creativity (materials + labor + IP): eg the wallpaper itself with some sort of designed pattern.**
Why then would we not be willing to pay for labor + IP?
It seems to be the only component of labor we are claiming should be free. Artists should be able to charge for the labor that went into creating the content that they are sharing. By framing the argument this way we can create a reasonable argument for artists to ask for compensation for their work by those who consume it.
** Wallpaper is an interesting example in this case. For decades the British film industry was based on a financing system called the sale & leaseback that owes its origin to, of all things, wallpaper. After WWII the British government allowed companies to depreciate 100% of the value of new machinery in a single year as a method of encouraging the rebuilding of the British manufacturing sector. Film distributors saw this and made the argument that reels of films were machinery and thus eligible for the accelerated depreciation. They won and for a number of years did just that. Then, one day, the inland revenue service went after a wallpaper manufacturer in the midlands for writing off not only the equipment but the die casts (the prints) as well. The company fought back in court, arguing that without the die casts the equipment was useless. Ultimately they won and a few smart producers, led by John Heyman (father of David Heyman, producer of Harry Potter), saw this and argued that the film reels being depreciated by distributors were useless without the film on the reel and thus the entire cost of the film should be depreciable. They won and that system lasted for over a quarter century.