The copyright problem and the path to mediocrity

Reviews of copyright laws are underway across the globe. It seems that most people think the laws are inadequate and have failed to keep up with developments in technology and culture. The trouble is, there seems to be an ever widening gap between the various ideas concerning what should be done.

The key agent of change here is, of course, the Internet. It has created a new paradigm demanding new attitudes and approaches – and no-one has worked out what they should be.

What we have seen is an exaggeration of a problem that creative people will tell you was always there. Those people whose talent and imagination actually create the works being consumed are generally last in line when it comes to handing out the proceeds.

As an example, take a look at one new business model brought into existence by the Internet – microstock photo libraries.

The traditional stock photo library employed skilled people who would vet submissions by professional photographers before placing their images in the library. Photo librarians were also skilled at searching the library for images they knew would match the needs of customers. The result was focused collections of high-quality images served by knowledgeable people.These images could command reasonably high prices because the clients using them knew they would enhance their book, magazine or whatever. This is turn provided a viable income for photographers who could dedicate themselves full-time to producing more images of equal quality, from which clients could benefit in the future. It worked well.

Amateurs and part-timers were largely kept out of this loop through a combination of lack of skill (which meant they failed the librairies’ vetting procedures) and the lack of ability to produce the quantities of images required.

Mountains of dross

Enter the Internet and some new technology. Anyone with a digital camera is now able to produce a huge quantity of technically acceptable images at minimal cost. Online microstock agencies will accept these with little or no vetting. Clients are prepared to wade through the mountains of dross, or even lower their standards, because most publishing is run by bean counters and the microstock agencies charge peanuts for the work.

This new model works brilliantly – for the libraries. The photographers, who may end up with just pennies per image used, earn virtually nothing. I’d be surprised if the average contributor to a microstock agency pulled in more than $50 a year: I’m certain many are earning far less.

Do the maths. Each library hold millions of images. The likelihood of one of your images being used is remote. The picture is sold royalty free, so the person who’s paid a few dollars for it can re-use it as many times as they like at no extra cost. So the photographer gets a cut of a handful of sales.

The library, on the other hand, gets a cut of every sale. It doesn’t mind if the income per image is low, so long as the library sells millions of images a year. In fact, it has a major incentive to sell the images as cheaply as possible. Low cost is the whole basis of its business model.

This is a model we’ve seen before: it’s highly reminiscent of the way colonial powers exploit third-world countries. Except that the ‘third-world country’ in this case is the huddled mass of Internet users (mostly in the first world) who seem grateful for whatever crumbs the imperious web-based organisations are prepared to give them. It’s purely exploitative, and people are grateful for it.

What’s the harm? There is no real reward for talent. People with originality and ability simply won’t enter the industry because it can’t offer them a viable living. The end result is deskilling, where the mountain of dross is all we have: it’s a relentless trend towards mediocrity.

Across the creative spectrum

Changes of similar magnitude are felt in every part of the creative spectrum. The shift in the ways we produce and consume creative works is the spur for amendments to copyright laws.

The problem is that enforcing current laws has become either difficult or impossible. Some see this as a sign that copyright itself is a problem.

In his book, ‘The Public Domain’, James Boyle makes a strong case that intellectual property is very important. But he makes much weaker cases for reducing or removing copyright protections. He indulges himself in emotive and crowd-pleasing statements about copyright laws ‘locking up’ knowledge, as though protecting authors’ rights somehow prevents the knowledge getting out.

At one point, he tries to suggest that copyright might be a straitjacket for authors, as though they are not able to relinquish it or put their work in the public domain, which of course they can if they choose. And that’s the real issue here: choice. Copyright offers protection for those who want it and those who need it.

Boyle cites several authors, including himself, who have made copies of their books available as free downloads. And he shows how they have benefited – from publicity and possible increases in sales of the print versions (though he is somewhat vague about this). There are a few things to note about these claims, however.

The first is that the authors he cites are those where this experiment has been successful. He makes no discussion about authors who have tried this and failed. Indeed, the data may not be available. So the evidence provided is highly selective.

Second, all but one of the authors he cites do not rely on their writing for their main income. Most are academics with nice cosy salaries to fall back on. (In the one instance he cites of an actual writer, the author made just one of his books available this way. Once his writing career was on track, he didn’t do it again.) Essentially, these people were in a comfortable position from which to take this risk. People who base their entire incomes on creative work don’t have that luxury.

And so you can say it’s a choice. But there may be an issue of expectation here. Let’s look at the music industry.

We now have a generation of people who regularly obtain their music for free, via bittorrents or other downloads. Most know that what they’re doing is illegal, but I think there’s an attitude among them that what they’re doing is normal and it’s the law that’s wrong. Perhaps they believe that the law simply hasn’t caught up with Internet reality. It’s, like, so 20th century…

When such things become regarded as normal, choice disappears.

Double whammy

Creative people thus face threats from two directions. The first is a change in public attitude – at least from the vast majority of the public whose livelihoods do not depend on the value intellectual property. There is now an assumption that information and even creative works should be free. Look at the difficulty newspapers are having in developing a viable Internet-based model. People don’t expect to have to pay to read articles. Quite why journalists should give away their work doesn’t enter their minds.

On the other hand, the Internet is creating an environment in which creators are struggling to make money from their efforts. in the end, jobs like journalist, editorial photographer, perhaps even musician, will largely disappear.

That’s already started to happen in the music biz. Bands no longer make money from CDs, not even from downloads. Their principle income is from live performance. Now some see that as a good thing: music is best when live. But there’s a limit to how many bands can make a viable income from gigging. What we’ll be left with is a smaller group of highly commercial, heavily packaged bands that can be marketed successfully. Once again, originality gets squeezed out.

Professionalism, then, is under threat. If the Internet economy is incapable of sustaining these kinds of jobs, then the very things that people want for free will deteriorate as professional works are replace with an amateur free-for-all. I guess you get what you pay for.

We’ll be left wading through the dross. All we’ll have is ‘the wisdom of crowds’, to quote James Surowiecki’s pithy if idiotic phrase. Here’s an example of the wisdom of crowds. It appeared on Yahoo Answers:

My hand turned blue, my veins I could see and they were very visible, my arm was purple, what happend?

I just had a pony tail around my wrist and when I felt the vein on my hand it was like round and it really stuck out.

Could I die if I kept it on too long?????????????

It drew 21 answers. And the following was voted to be the best:

you wre cutting off blood circulation because the pony tail was too
tight the reason your vein was big is because the the blood couldnt get
to your hand bo you wouldnt die but u might have to get your hand cut
off if u keep it there

Yes, that was the best. Others included:

ewwwwwwwwwwwwww….and no u can’t die, but u r torturing ur self

u kut ur circulation dip shyt and ye if u pop a vein lik dat u mite die

So much for wisdom.

Copyright helps ensure that it is worth someone’s while to develop skills, aquire knowledge, adopt professional standards and invest the time and effort in creating words, images and sounds that enhance our lives. Otherwise we’re left with the mediocrity of crowds.


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