Paying for Creativity

Over on Facebook, a single blog post was linked to by four different friends of mine: a physicist, a science writer/spouse, a saxophone player, and a screenwriter. Clearly something has struck a nerve!

The common thread binding together these creative people who make a living off of their creative work is the impact of technology on how we distribute intellectual property. In other words: do you ever pay for music any more?

Emily White doesn’t. She’s an intern at NPR’s All Things Considered, where she wrote a blog post saying that she “owns” over 11,000 songs, but has only paid for about 15 CD’s in her entire life. The rest were copied from various sources or shared over the internet. She understands that the people who made the music she loves deserve to be paid for their work, and she’s willing to do so — but only if it’s convenient, and apparently the click it takes to purchase from iTunes doesn’t qualify.

The brilliant (and excessively level-headed) response that my friends all linked to was penned by David Lowery. He makes the case much better than I would have, so read him. Making the case is necessary; there is a long tail of compensation in creative fields, and we’re all familiar with the multi-millionaires, so it’s easy to forget the much larger numbers of people sweating to earn a decent living. Not everyone has the ability to create work that other people are willing to pay for, of course; the universe does not owe you the right to earn money from your writing or thinking or playing. But when other people appreciate and benefit from your stuff, you do have a right to be compensated, I think.

Coincidentally, today I stumbled across a book that I didn’t know existed — one about me! Or at least, one whose title is my name. Since nobody other than my Mom thinks I deserve to have a book written about me, my curiosity was piqued.

Turns out that the book (apparently) isn’t so much about me, as a collection of things I have written, supplemented by Wikipedia pages. None of which I knew about at all. In other words, for $60 you can purchase a 160-page book of things you can find on the internet for free. There is a company, VDM Publishing, that specializes in churning such things out via print-on-demand. Turning Wikipedia pages into a book is bizarre and disreputable, but possibly legal. Taking blog posts and articles I have written and including them in the book is straight-up illegal, I’m afraid.

Fortunately, I’m not losing much value here, as only a crazy person would pay $60 for an unauthorized collection of Wikipedia articles and blog posts, and I like to think that my target audience is mostly non-crazy people. But it’s a bad sign, I would think. Stuff like this is only going to become more popular.

Don’t let that dissuade you from purchasing highly authorized collections of very good blog posts! For example The Best Science Writing Online 2012, appearing this September. No posts from Cosmic Variance this year, but I have it on good authority that the editor worked really hard to make this a standout collection.

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57 Responses to Paying for Creativity

  1. Miles Bader says:

    “she wrote a blog post saying that she “owns” over 11,000 songs, but has only paid for about 15 CD’s in her entire life. The rest were copied from various sources or shared over the internet. She understands that the people who made the music she loves deserve to be paid for their work, and she’s willing to do so — but only if it’s convenient, and apparently the click it takes to purchase from iTunes doesn’t qualify.”

    Keep in mind that there’s a lot of very good music on the internet which is quite legal to download without paying—tons of musicians release their stuff on the internet with liberal licensing, music being one of those fields where many people do it for the love of the craft, rather than to make a buck.

    So unless she explicitly said she was downloading “commercial” tunes, don’t be so sure she’s some sort of scofflaw…

    [This is of course one of the reasons the traditional music industry is so scared of the internet: if they can’t control the means of distribution, what’s to stop others from undercutting them, or dreaming up interesting business models which sidestep them?]

    “Turning Wikipedia pages into a book is bizarre and disreputable, but possibly legal”

    Wait, why on earth would that be bizarre and/or disreputable…? If somebody wants wikipedia in print form, it seems a good thing that there’s some service to provide that…

  2. Tim Martin says:

    A decent article – gives me some things to think about. However I was disappointed by the fact that the writer made mostly a moral argument, as opposed to something more objective (i.e. “This is what might happen to the music industry if people don’t pay for music,” etc.)

  3. Aaron Sheldon says:

    The information economy is all fine and dandy, but in the end someone has to push a plough or we will all starve.

    If you are expecting to make a living by thinking things that other people will perceive value in, well then you might as well play the craps table. The human perception of value is endlessly capricious and fickle, and will pick and choose what it wants without any wisdom, consideration, or reason. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all.

    If your goal is to make a substantial profit then you will have to manipulate public perception.

    There are plenty of compelling artists and scientist who live in obscurity, and particularly for the artists near poverty, and there are plenty of vapid billionaires. Don’t every expect the human race to make sense, none of us are entitled to explanations, you have to seek them yourself.

    If you want to be happy, find a job that will support your interests and will hopefully not be to divergent from them, or horribly onerous.

  4. Jason Dick says:

    This is why I tend to think that our entire content distribution system is fundamentally broken. I’d really really like to see a system where all media is free (aside from small fees for publishing), and artists are paid based upon how many people view their work. We would then have to all pay some small tax or similar. Different works may be able to negotiate different levels of payment. For example, low-volume, high-cost books like graduate-level text books may be able to negotiate higher fees per use.

    That said, in music, if you want the artist to get money, go to concerts. That’s where all but the biggest-name artists make most of their money these days (and, crucially, artists get a larger fraction of the receipts than they do for music sales), and concert receipts have increased even as music sales have fallen. This is, as I understand it, the real reason why many musicians release their songs for free: they don’t make much money that way anyway, and it acts as advertisement for their real revenue stream.

  5. Tasha says:

    Whenever I lament on about a book I want not being available in e-book form or in this country, I invariably get helpful tips about where and how to download it (illegally) for free. I don’t steal books, but it is obviously very common.

  6. keith says:

    By linking The Pirate Bay, for example, to “big business” (Google search results) the author is lying for a manipulative effect, which is a shame because there’s a good point in there somewhere. I think we need to have faith in people. Emily may be rotten, and if she’s representative then we’re all going to hell anyway, but we need to find that out by rolling the dice.

    I sold all my 800 CDs, but now I buy a lot of individual tracks by following links from – a very simple process, and there isn’t much I have to steal. There was a study commissioned by the British film industry that proved, annoyingly for them, that the biggest torrentors also contributed the most money to the film industry (they still lie about this in piracy warnings). I guess this is a universal trait, on average, and everyone needs to chill out and not focus on individual Emilys.

  7. varcher says:

    “Wait, why on earth would that be bizarre and/or disreputable…? If somebody wants wikipedia in print form, it seems a good thing that there’s some service to provide that…”

    The goal isn’t to provide printed Wikipedia, the goal is to spam Amazon with as many keyworded “books” as possible, and hope that some gullible soul will think it’s a real book and purchase it. The typesetting and assembly are now entirely automatic, it’s using a couple of Google related searches and Wikipedia cross-linked articles to create new books at regular intervals.

    Now, regarding the original article and the intern’s position, it’s… complicated.

    The publishing (whether it’s books, music, video, whatever) economy is undergoing an enormous disintermediation. The traditional publishing economy cycle is thus: Creator/Author -> Editor -> Publisher -> Wholesaler -> Retailer -> Consumer/Reader/Listener/Spectator (with, of course, the reverse flow for the monetary compensation).

    With the information infrastructure, most people see the middlemen as unnecessary intermediates. Or, for the fanatics, outright parasites. And when you look at the sizes of the relative positions, then you’re going to think they’re even bloated parasites. Take a Sony BMG (which combines Editor/Publisher), or an Apple (a Wholesaler/Retailer), and it’s hard not to think of them as completely useless intermediaries.

    So, at one point, it’s “us vs the system”. Not “us vs the authors”, but “us vs the big bads that steal from the authors!”

    What those people don’t realize is that the intermediaries DO add value. First, because the job of creating is not the job of publishing or marketing: the author who does all his marketing, setting up merchant account on paypal, working on a sales site… is doing the wrong job. He’s not creating. With people whose full-time job is to edit books, promote bands, and sites who provide you with a simple way of purchasing, you have an author who can focus on producing books, writing songs, creating new shows. And that’s added value, which, presumably has to be paid.

    Of course, once you look at the profit levels of those intermediaries, you cannot escape the feeling that those intermediaries are compensated at a level disproportionate to that added value. That, and of course, the shenanigans (mainly on the video side) that a legal monopoly allows to twist the market to extract the maximum money from the customer (support exclusivity, time-delayed and geography-constrained releases).

  8. keith says:

    Some middlemen are useful, but more still will find themselves redundant. The noise we currently hear is the death rattle of useless middlemen. They’re rich so they get to make laws to protect their crumbling corpses, and I think that’s the only real danger here. Focus fire on corrupt lawmakers.

  9. SLAC reports, in a recent news, that BaBar data hint at cracks in the Standard Model. The excess decays has to be still confirmed, but they claim that data already rules out the Two Higgs Doublet Model.

  10. Kevin says:

    #4, Jason Dick: My thoughts on future forms of content/media distribution tend in a similar direction as yours. Digital goods have no scarcity, so we can’t rely on economic systems which are based on scarce goods.

    In an idealistic mood, I would say we should guarantee a base allowance of media consumption for everyone, e.g. “content stamps” (like food stamps) which can be used by consumers to support creators they like. (Obviously, those above the poverty level would do the same with their own income.) The impetus for supporting creators should not be phrased as a property transaction; digital goods have no scarcity, but creativity itself still does. Creators need support to keep creating, and we should support creators we like for that reason.

    A good model of how consumers think about piracy: Piracy and the four currencies

  11. In several countries, the Pirate Party is making significant inroads. These people openly threaten the idea of copyright, which led to the democratization of creative work. The alternative is that only the rich, or those who are supported by rich patrons, can afford this sort of work. That would be a return to the middle ages. (By the way, the fact that they are in parliament in some European countries and not in the US is because of proportional represenation, not because such thought is more prevalent in Europe. Of course, I continue to support PR even if the occasional kooks get elected. Actually, it is better that way since kooks are then more quickly recognized for what they are, and can’t play the card that a siginificant (if small) fraction of the population is overlooked.)

    All of the stuff about the “content mafia” is a smokescreen to divert attention from the real problem, which is theft, pure and simple. Even if there are problems in details, that does not mean one should chuck out the whole system. Even less does it give one the right to steal things. The whole idea of laws is that one should abide by them even if one disagrees; if everyone agreed, there would be no need for a law.

    This has nothing at all to do with the idea of open access in science, primarily because scientists have never earned money by selling access to their papers. Sean, beware: as an open-access advocate in science, the pirates will claim you support their idea of the abolition of copyright.

    There are several arguments in favour of stealing stuff that anyone who can’t see right away that they are bogus probably won’t benefit from an explanation. These stupid arguments are that theft is free advertising for the creative ones, that it is no different from taping vinyl albums on cassette, that it hurts only the middle men and not the artist, that other people are paid once for doing something so artists should too (note that they usually don’t suggest how this suggestion should be implemented), that it should be allowed because it cannot be prevented anyway (by that logic, one should legalize gang rape in the ghetto).

    In principle I don’t have any problem with a more modern system in which artists were paid depending on how many people download something, but the same people who advocate “file sharing” (a good example of doublespeak) are also the same people who would disallow counting such acceess on the grounds that internet users have a right to privacy. (Cue Anonymous demonstrating for transparency—behind masks. Cue Anonymous demonstrating for freedom of speech—by launching DDOS attacks on the web servers of those who think differently. The sad thing is that most people, whichever side they are on, don’t see the hypocrisy.)

  12. “That said, in music, if you want the artist to get money, go to concerts. That’s where all but the biggest-name artists make most of their money these days (and, crucially, artists get a larger fraction of the receipts than they do for music sales), and concert receipts have increased even as music sales have fallen. This is, as I understand it, the real reason why many musicians release their songs for free: they don’t make much money that way anyway, and it acts as advertisement for their real revenue stream.”

    First, simple human decency and respect for one’s fellow humans should dictate that the artist should decide if he wants “free revenue” or not, not you.

    Second, there are many bands who, for various reasons, do not give concerts. Maybe you are not aware of them, but that is part of the point: abolition of copyright would hurt the low-profile artists much more. Also, sales of CDs etc bring in revenue over a longer period of time.

    With things other than music: yes, authors occasionally have public readings, but this is not where most earn their money. Then there is the whole film industry, which involves many, many people (watch the credits!).

    I seriously think that this idea that copyright has been made superfluous by the internet is the greatest threat to civilization that exists. Yes, there is stuff like AGW, but by now there is a consensus and deniers are kooks. That is not yet the case in this discusssion.

  13. PL Hayes says:

    I think that blog post is pretty appalling, actually. The author appears to be a teacher of the economics of the music business but one needn’t be familiar with even the absolute basics of the economics of innovation and intellectual property to see what is wrong with his blatant “you are taking money directly from the artist” fallacy. In particular, I doubt someone like Emily White would fail to see what’s wrong with it. Despite the claim to the contrary I think the whole post is rather strawman-ish and crude and risks being counterproductive.

  14. James says:

    Yes, that response was excessively level-headed, but it was also completely beside the point. The future of the music industry in the online age won’t be affected *at all* by what someone thinks people should do, or even by what many think people should do. It will be determined by what people actually do, and what they do is download music for free.

    Now if there were a system where people could download whatever they wanted and agree to pay (or not) a small fee each time they listen to a song, then I think we’d find many people doing it. Then there would be no risk. Most of the 10,000 illegally copied songs on my ipod I haven’t even listened to. It would be ridiculous to pay for them. More to the point, I would never both downloading them if I had to pay for them. But I would probably agree to pay a ten cents, say, directly to the artist every time I listen to a song.

    In the absence of something like that, only the old and the suckers will pay. Things are only going in one direction. Get used to it.

  15. @14

    A system where the consumer pays what the consumer deems is fair won’t work. Why not put your money (or lack of it) where your mouth is and demand this for all payment, not just for creative works? Thieves are thieves. I, for one, am extremely happy that Kim Schmitz is behind bars.

  16. Naked Bunny with a Whip says:

    Thieves are thieves.

    And the recording industry’s fabricated piracy numbers are fabricated. I guess that’s why Lowery couldn’t actually support his argument with by providing statistics about real damages to artists (there aren’t any), instead relying on a few personal anecdotes and making assumptions about causes.

    Both of these artists, despite growing global popularity, saw their incomes collapse in the last decade. There is no other explanation except for the fact that “fans” made the unethical choice to take their music without compensating these artists.>

    Yes. That is the only possible explanation. No citations needed. Case closed!

  17. Arun says:

    “The Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998 extended copyright terms in the United States by 20 years. Since the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright would last for the life of the author plus 50 years, or 75 years for a work of corporate authorship. The Act extended these terms to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever endpoint is earlier.[1] Copyright protection for works published prior to January 1, 1978, was increased by 20 years to a total of 95 years from their publication date.
    This law, also known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, Sonny Bono Act, or as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act,[2] effectively “froze” the advancement date of the public domain in the United States for works covered by the older fixed term copyright rules. Under this Act, additional works made in 1923 or afterwards that were still protected by copyright in 1998 will not enter the public domain until 2019 or afterward (depending on the date of the product) unless the owner of the copyright releases them into the public domain prior to that or if the copyright gets extended again.[clarification needed] Unlike copyright extension legislation in the European Union, the Sonny Bono Act did not revive copyrights that had already expired. The Act did extend the terms of protection set for works that were already copyrighted, and is retroactive in that sense. However, works created before January 1, 1978, but not published or registered for copyright until recently, are addressed in a special section (17 U.S.C. § 303) and may remain protected until the end of 2047. The Act became Pub.L. 105-298 on October 27, 1998″.

    —— Why is the copyright extension acceptable?

  18. OMF says:

    But when other people appreciate and benefit from your stuff, you do have a right to be compensated, I think.

    I think it’s pretty clear that your book/paper writing ratio has increased in recent years.

    If you would cast your mind back a few years to when you wrote papers, and needed to cite others, perhaps you would recall being on the receiving end of the copyright industry? Perhaps you would recall being asked to pay $25, $30, and even up to $50 for 1MB pdfs sitting behind paywalls? perhaps you would recall writing some of these very papers—for no compensation at all.

    Perhaps you will recall how your labours generated private profits for others, for nothing but additional cost to yourself.

    Now, maybe you had access to a very good library and didn’t encounter such pay-walls on a daily basis. Or maybe a few years ago the situation was not as bad as it is now(I would be interested in learning about this). But regardless, I think you need to re-familiarise yourself with the contemporary relationship between copyright an academia before you make statements like the above without qualification.

  19. Bee says:

    There was an interesting article in the NYT some while ago about the “robot authored books”

    (I think it’s the same “Lambert M. Surhone” whose name I believe I can decipher on the image in your post.)

    You know what’s the real tragedy about this is that this stuff shows up in Amazon searches and so on. They really should think about some filter there.

  20. keith says:

    “A system where the consumer pays what the consumer deems is fair won’t work.”

    I’m fairly certain that it will. Different people will be paid different amounts from now, there will be much complaining and lying from those no longer useful, but if we can’t trust ourselves to do well then there is really no point in anything.

  21. Moshe says:

    Here are some numbers in an area I care about:

    In my mind, based on these numbers, this might well be the last generation having full time professional jazz musicians. As for solutions, I am all for anti-piracy legislation. But, more practical solutions might involve finding different models for artisist to make a living. Science is also an esoteric activity whose benefit is not measured in timeframe of weeks (like money-making music). To a large extent we can survive because we don’t have to sell our product directly to the public. I do see more musicians supporting themselves by teaching in colleges and universities, that might be a start of a model.

    (incidentally, the blog post in question does not seem to be about this issue at all. I also don’t own physical -as opposed to digital – music any more, and I also think that the Spotify model might well replace music ownership. This has nothing to do with music piracy.)

  22. Jack says:

    The copyright issue is much more complicated than people are presenting it. I think a large amount of the push back from regular people is due to the ever increasing influence that major industry players have on the government. In a world where sharing one song could cost you $150k, and copyright is extended for another 20 years whenever mickey mouse is close to public domain, one begins to wonder if it is really worth “playing by the book” and paying for all of the content one consumes when large corporations are not playing fair themselves. The argument for independent production is a good one, and people should have a stronger moral incentive to pay in those situations (and they do, look at the success of the humble indy game bundles as an example of giving away a product and only asking to be paid!).

    That said, the abolition of copyright is not going to cause a worldwide meltdown. Look how well open source software has done, it has allowed for an ever increasing number of people to gain more value in their lives (whether they know it or not, things like Facebook, Google, and Wikipedia, are all courtesy of software which is free to distribute). The digital medium has allowed for middle men to be cut out, no need for warehouses and delivery trucks, people can distribute among themselves. To think that this revolution in civilization is a bad thing is absurd, it is the most amazing thing that has happened to humanity, the free and open dissemination of knowledge and art is very powerful!

    To those who pirate, I ask only one thing: contribute yourselves. Don’t just take, give back and let your own creative works be disseminated. If you don’t like the idea of that, then maybe you should rethink your own actions.

  23. Ben says:

    I enjoy supporting musicians by buying CD’s in the same way that I enjoy leaving a tip in a street performer’s cup. But I think it’s perfectly fine to digitally copy other people’s music, which I often do.
    My decision which method I use to get music depends on many factors, and I don’t think other people need to care how I do it. When I go to a show with friends and buy a CD, I expect them to copy it from me, who doesn’t? Listening to a street musician and then not tipping is not immoral.
    Digital copying of anything is not immoral. Why do we have a law for only the latter? For the same reason that many people feel righteous about telling other people what they can copy: Because powerful lobbies have been telling us that up is down.

    Technology has changed. How many people had 11,000 records? A law which is unenforceable should not be a law. Let people lead by example, and let bands make their own pleas about why they
    would rather us not copy their songs; people may listen to that. It’s a pretty tall order to expect a non-musician could convince someone that downloading music is stealing, or cheating. If we end up with no musicians because they couldn’t sell enough albums, society will adapt.

    This comment is copyrighted. All rights reserved. Reproduce by permission only.

  24. Jim Harrison says:

    There is a huge contradiction in the middle of this issue: intellectual property rights are always defended in the name of rewarding the creative individuals who produce the content, but the larger beneficiaries are the corporate interests that control the content in practice and are simply engaged in rent seeking. It has always been thus. The printer/publishers of Elizabethan England didn’t give a damn about starving poets. They promoted the Stationers Register system in order to ensure their lasting control of profitable backlist. Extending copyright for 90 or a hundred years may result in a check arriving at the apartment of a novelist’s puzzled great grand daughter, but mostly it will serve to enrich the mostly anonymous owners of cultural capital.

    Let us separate out two problems: on the one hand, how do we make it possible for creative people to live well and go on creating and, on the other, how do we make sure that the creators have property in their works? The sciences provide one possible model. You don’t have to pay a royalty to Feynman’s widow every time you draw a Feynman diagram, but it remains a Feynman diagram because he published, i.e. gave away, the method and thus established his priority.

  25. Milan says:

    “But when other people appreciate and benefit from your stuff, you do have a right to be compensated, I think.”

    I dont think you have a ‘right’ to be compensated. We as a society deemed that it is beneficial for all of us that you do get compensated and created the copyright system to ensure this. The system is failing and it is not possible to correct for this without serious consequences to personal freedom. The goal I have no problem with, but we need a system that is new and fundamentally different.

    I am from the same generation as Emily and I do pay for my music and I donate directly to artists. I find her views to be naive and selfish.

    But why would you post a response to such a simplistic view of the problem? If we admit that her position is naive then the response itself obviously cannot prove its point because it overlooks many important issues. Is the generational gap so big that you are unaware of why our generation is taking this position? Or do you believe it is entirely because of shallow views such as Emily’s?

    As you kick ass in pretty much anything you write about I am very much puzzled by this.