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. PL Hayes says:

    @Jack “That said, the abolition of copyright is not going to cause a worldwide meltdown. Look how well open source software has done,”

    Arguably, that is in part thanks to the GPL (which is reliant on copyright law) and things would’ve turned out less well in overall economic welfare terms if there’d been no copyright law or – nearly equivalently – BSD-style licensing had dominated.

    Boldrin and Levine have argued for copyright law abolition but I favour Boyle’s view that it’s a good idea in principle which has been so undermined by mindless propaganda and corruption of form that it’s been brought into disrepute even in the eyes of some of its direct beneficiaries.

  2. Jeff Johnson says:

    Dean Baker has an interesting idea, the Artistic Freedom Voucher, as an alternative to copyright for creative works. It’s worth looking at for at least a thought provoking suggestion on how things might be otherwise than they are:

  3. Marshall B says:

    To #4 Jason: Here’s something Amiee Mann posted on her FB page yesterday:

    “Though I appreciate the advice, “learning to market” isn’t really viable, as I market my records & tour as much as I can afford. Touring is expensive if you want to pay your musicians a decent rate. Most of my tours LOSE money.”

  4. Wryd Smythe says:

    I remember debating this (on USENET) over a decade ago when digital sharing was starting to take off. There is a segment of society that believes that information–ALL information–should be free. At the time, I argued on the side of copyrights and royalties, but ever since then I’ve pondered the “free information” model.

    It may be that the digital era means the end of copyrights or, at least, of royalties. The model the “free information” people suggest involves a one-time payment to the artist for their work. More popular artists would be able to command higher payments. Thing is, I’ve never really seen where those payments would come from if the information becomes free thereafter. Perhaps from a distribution company that gets tiny payments from its users?

    Bottom line, to me, is that the digital era seems certain to change our ideas of intellectual property rights. Whether the change will be good or bad is anyone’s guess.

    FWIW, I’m in my upper 50s and have followed music from vinyl to cassette to 8-tracks (shudder) to CDs to iTunes. Other than copying a few friends’ CD, I’ve paid for every note (I wouldn’t have bought the CDs, if that matters at all). I’ve bought a number of albums several times now… the greatest line from MIB was, “Now I have to buy the White Album again!”

  5. Lab Lemming says:

    For artists, a more important distinction is that contracts for legal, paid electron ic distribution are generally much less favorable than the contracts for physical media distribution. So, for example, a person who had been getting a percentage of gross on movie or DVD sales might be getting nothing on iTunes downloads.

    So it is not a question of legal vs illegal downloads. It is a question of competition in the marketplace. Online sales are generally done through a few very large distribution networks, so there is very little bargaining leverage for artists wanting their work distributed there. This is why Amazon and iTunes are so profitable, of course.

  6. Phil P says:

    I have a baseball website and I offer a number of free downloadable documents that I wrote. One day I got an email from someone who wanted one of the documents. Apparently he had found it on and they wanted a fee for him to download it from them. Apparently, docstoc scours the internet for free stuff which they assemble into a database. Users can query the database and if they find something they want, they can download it for a small fee. I guess they are providing a service, but the documents are the intellectual property of other people, even if they give it away for free. I’m not trying to make money from my stuff, so I was a bit incensed that they were trying to make money from my stuff.

  7. Meh says:

    I’m all for downloading content which can’t be bought. There is plenty of music I’ve downloaded that can’t be bought anymore, the same can be said of books. I think once nobody is TRYING to make a profit, then by all means, download as much as you want/can.

    I worked in the music industry before foolishly going back to school for physics. I can tell you exactly the cost you pay for downloading music for free. The result is, less original content. And when there is some original content that’s actually good, they can’t make any money, so they eventually get out of the game. Music labels continue to produce the same lame music that we’ve heard time and time again. Not only that, but these same record labels will place a good group/person under contract and never allow them to release a single song, just so that they don’t take away revenue from a group/band they’ve already put a lot of time and money into. Record companies can’t afford to take chances, so they don’t. Original musicians can’t get their music out there, because they make no profit once it hits the internet. you’re left with nothing but the safe, lame formula for pop music.

  8. Ysa says:

    Indeed Meh. It’s something that several people have been telling but the consumer doesn’t really realize, care or believe it.
    I myself have been writing, performing, recording, mixing and mastering music so I know the business a little bit. I’m not naive, I know people will download. I mean, it’s not like I have never done it myself.

    But people don’t realize how much work and money actually go into an album. Even on lower levels, regardless of genre, it’s more than you think. One time we worked on a project for a year due to some issues which forced us to buy new equipment and almost start all over. When everything finally is done it gets sent to a magazine for review. This one turned out positive and the SAME day there were requests for a torrent on download sites 😛 Nice that they care but it also made you think of the work before.

    About downloading because musicians are rich anyway, a standard deal in our genre is about 10% of the sales. But they deduct “risk costs”, some percentage because cd’s “will get” damaged during transport, some for promo’s which they then sell anyway. Then costs if your tour didn’t bring in enough etc. etc.

    Playing live instead of selling albums as some suggest isn’t really a money maker for most bands. Most do it for the love of playing since the pay isn’t that amazing if you don’t have a company pushing you. Some more wellknown band in our genre got about 300$ royalties for a whole year of touring. The company just deducted “some” touring costs since the band didn’t sell enough merchandise per night. To be honest, some have indeed quit making music due to situations like these and focused on doing some things on their own. But less frequent since it’s hard to get seen when the companies have huge PR machines drowning out lesser known talent.

    @Phil, I had something similar. We found some Chinese site that had our music and whole discographies of thousands of bands for sale. They also had books, movies etc. And they actually downloaded illegally and then provided a service where you could pay a small sum per month which let you download as much as you could.

  9. floodmouse says:

    I don’t know much about the economics of the modern music scene. Reading these posts provoked more questions than answers.

    In reading people’s posts, one thing I didn’t see addressed was satellite radio subscription service. I have subscribed to satellite radio for several years. It costs about $40 per radio per quarter-year, and you get unlimited streaming. You can also download music onto a temporary storage device on your satellite radio. I’m not sure how copyrights apply in this situation, or if the musicians benefit. The electronic-dance music channel has a lot of one-hour DJ mixes that are released weekly or monthly. Do the DJs get paid when their shows are broadcast on satellite, and do these DJs pay the artists they sample? I’d be interested to know how my music buying choice is impacting the market. I never really thought about this issue before.

    Another thing I wondered is this: Since the musicians apparently get much less than half of the profits from marketing, why don’t a bunch of musicians get together, form a co-op, and sell their music electronically? Selling electronically has much lower admin costs than old-fashioned record & CD marketing. Also, I suspect people might be more inclined to pay the artists directly than to pay a record label or a corporation. Paypal and low-cost web hosting services make this a real possibility. It seems like the only people the musicians would need to pay would be the web administrator, and possible a publicity agent. If enough musicians banded together this way, they could spread the costs of hiring these people. I’m not sure if it would work, but I thought I would toss it out there and see what people thought.

  10. The response is indeed completely level-headed. The only difference is that, if I lived in the same jurisdiction, I would file charges against Emily if she didn’t issue a public apology within, say, two weeks.

    There are Hell’s Angels who have symbols (tattoos, things sewn onto their jacket) which indicate what crimes they have committed. Admitting on the internet to being a thief is little different.

  11. “And the recording industry’s fabricated piracy numbers are fabricated. “

    Do two wrongs make a right? Even if the recording industry are the evil guys, what right does that give anyone to deny the artist due compenstation?

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

    Again, anyone who draws a false parallel between scientific publishing (where Sean rightly supports open access) and internet piracy either does not understand the issues or is intentionally setting up a smokescreen.

  12. PL Hayes says:

    @Phillip Helbig

    On the other hand, asserting a false equivalence between copyright infringement and theft is indicative of at least as serious a failure of understanding of the issues (or as dark an intention).

  13. Consider the following: These days, various knock-out drops and other date-rape drugs are freely available. Slip it in her drink, rape her and on the next day she won’t remember anything. It is technically possible so it is immoral to forbid it. The current law stems from the time when such means were not available; it needs to be updated to be more modern. Since she doesn’t remember, one hasn’t deprived her of anything nor caused her any stress. And, hey, while we’ll take it if we can steal it, we wouldn’t pay for it anyway, so it’s not even lost income.

    If the supporters of internet piracy do not support the above, why not? Is there some “higher moral law”? If so, why doesn’t it apply to people earning money to support themselves and their families?

  14. @38: Presumably robbery is “property infringement”?

  15. “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.

    Let us know how you earn your money and we’ll start there.

  16. “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 “

    Irrelevant, because here the people agree for it to be freely available. That’s the point; freely available stuff is not bad per se; what is bad is not letting those who create something make the decision.

  17. @27: If you read this, you see that, while it sounds OK at first (even to me), it depends on some sort of official decision on whether the person involved is really engaged in the activity in question. So, someone has to officially decide what is art and what is not. I don’t think we want to go down that road.

  18. “The model the “free information” people suggest involves a one-time payment to the artist for their work. More popular artists would be able to command higher payments.”

    Who makes that one-time payment, who determines how large it is, who determines how popular artists are?

  19. Stolen Dormouse says:

    Sean, VDM isn’t the only company that makes money by reprinting public domain material (see Wikipedia’s article on Books LLC). In many cases these companies print “books”-on-request by running Wikipedia articles through optical character recognition (OCR) software. However, to save on their costs, they don’t bother with the copyediting that is needed to clean up the results of OCR, so what buyers often get is incomprehensible.

    Alternatively, they will sell you a “book” on PDF that you could download for free.

    Even without these pirates, reprinting something that is in the public domain can be tricky. Some U.S. government publications, though not protected by copyright, may be protected by other laws requiring written permission to reprint public domain materials for profit. And a public domain document that uses copyrighted figures (with permission granted, for example, to a U.S. government agency) can’t be reprinted without the new publisher going back to each copyrighted figure’s original copyright holder for permission.

  20. sievemaria says:

    Getting compensation for something you love doing – – is Wonderful ! ( and allows one to do more ! ) Getting something you love for free is also Great – there lies the paradox .

  21. Wryd Smythe says:

    @43: If you had also quoted the three sentences that directly followed the one you did quote, you would have your answer:

    “More popular artists would be able to command higher payments. Thing is, I’ve never really seen where those payments would come from if the information becomes free thereafter. Perhaps from a distribution company that gets tiny payments from its users?”

    There seem to be two distinct issues here: Copyright and Royalties. The former is about who can use your work (currently: no one without your permission). The latter is about continuing to earn from your work as it is used and re-used. I can see the idea of royalties falling easier than the idea of copyright, but for me the bottom line is that the digital era changes the equation in ways we haven’t figured out, yet.

  22. Kaviani 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.”

    BLESS YOU. I know I’m totally taking the “wrong” side here (amid a blog forum of nothing but authors who plug their books here), but I dismiss the alarm. Ms. NPR does not merit that scorn.

  23. Craig McGillivary says:

    Your ignoring the fact that your intellectual property rights are created by the government with the hope of increasing creative stuff. However often times your property rights limit the ability of other people to create creative stuff based on your works. Also because you have been given monopoly rights there is a huge amount of dead weight loss. That’s what economists refer to the situation where you would be willing to pay $10 for a book, but it costs $15 so you don’t read the book and the author doesn’t get your $10. Alternatively you could send the author a $10 check and then download a bootlegged copy of his book. Thus both of you are better off. Better enforcement of IP laws or stronger social norms against breaking them could actually harm creativity and make us all worse off, so there is a difficult tradeoff.

  24. PL Hayes says:

    @Phillip Helbig

    Robbery is an infringement of tangible property rights, yes. What of it? The libertarian, Stephan Kinsella ( ), has devised a suitably ironic counterargument for those who insist on maintaining absurdly crude equivalences between tangible and intangible property in their ‘arguments’:

    “Prima facie, therefore, IP law trespasses against or “takes” the property of tangible property owners, by transferring partial ownership to authors and inventors. It is this invasion and redistribution of property that must be justified in order for IP rights to be valid.” –Against Intellectual Property.

    (The argument actually retains considerable weight in /sensible/ debate about patents because of the lack of an independent (re-)invention defence in patent law.)

  25. “why don’t a bunch of musicians get together, form a co-op, and sell their music electronically?”

    Presumably because, despite various problems (which even I acknowledge exist), they think traditional record companies are better. No-one is stopping them from doing so, some people have. Again, the point is that it should be the artists’ decision whether or not to go this route, not yours.

    The latest CD by Judy Dyble is fantastic. However, not many people bought it. An email list which I subscribe to related the following story (which happened on another email list): Some folks mentioned the new album, others offered it for free digital copy. Others criticized these, speaking as I do. Then came the standard bogus argument that it is really free advertising etc. Then Judy Dyble herself, a lurker, chimed in and told everyone what her yearly income is (not much) and how much of it comes from the sale of CDs (a big chunk). This episode makes it clear that unauthorized digital copying is “intellectual rape” (with the added insult of “she actually wants it but is too stupid to know it”).