After Patreon: we need a Bill of Rights for creators

The latest problems with Patreon should remind us how the creators we love are badly exploited by businesses…and need our protection.

Like may writers, I use Patreon as a way of recouping some costs on the hours put into my blog and other projects. Unlike most writers, I’m fortunate that this money isn’t paying my bills. My interest in patreon is more than partly curiosity — I’m fascinated by today’s emerging creator culture.

We live in amazing times for human creativity. There are more opportunities, for more people, of more backgrounds, to create than ever before. And I mean create in the widest sense here, be that writing, illustration, livestreaming your video games or founding a tech startup. If it fires your human spirit, and has you leaping out of bed every morning with pure passion, it’s creative.

I think when we look back on the early 21st century, we’ll recognise it as the turning point into a creator culture, in which we value people for their creative talents, over their consumer spending power.

Our entire economy is in the process of reforming around the new creator culture. But when I look at many of the institutions forming to “support” that creativity, instituitions like Patreon, I see the same story.

Exploitation.

“The platforms creators rely on, are entirely beyond our control, and not operated to serve our interests.”

In fairness to Patreon, even efter it’s disastrous decison on fees, it remains one of the better of these new creator platforms. With 95% of income going to creators, it’s clearly trying to do the right thing (for now). The anger unleashed against Patreon this week was, at least in part, the pent up rage of creators who face daily exploitation in trying to do their work.

Amazon Kindle, the biggest platform for authors, takes 35-70% of every sale. YouTube pays pennies to its creators, on $$$ made in video ad revenue. Medium, where I’m writing this, is attempting a pay-per-clap model that shifts all risk onto creators. Platforms like Udemy, Upwork, Spotify, Etsy, Shopify and many more are all relied on by creators, and all raise their own issues.

It can be argued either way whether these, or any percentage, are “fair”. The real problem here is that millions of creators using these platforms have absolutely zero representation in what are privately owned, purely profit motivated businesses. The platforms creators rely on, are entirely beyond our control, and not operated to serve our interests.

This balance of power needs to change.

Creators today, and this is no hyperbole or exageration, face exactly the same systemic challenges that workers face in relation to businesses, and that citizens face in relation to government. Individually we have far less power than the platforms we must work through. But collectively, we have far more power.

Our modern economy, driven by knowledge, information, and innovation, rests on individual creativity. Creators must strike a bargain with society as a whole, as to how our work is valued and rewarded. If this isn’t achieved, creators will continue to subsist, in most cases, on far below minimum wage, with much of that taken by these powerful platforms.

The curent political tenor of our society, with rights and benefits stripped from workers of all kinds, makes governmemt intervention unlikely. The same misinformation that lead us to abandon worker protections, makes the collective action of unions for creators a far and distant impossibility.

Creators need to act for themselves. We need an idea that creators can sign up to strengthen, and that creator platforms can choose to adopt.

We need a Bill of Rights for creators.

What would such a Bill of Rights contain? I think there a 3 key ideas it would need to address.

Transparency — creator platforms are deliberately opaque about their inner workings. Advertising revenues, rating and ranking systems, monetization schemes and much more, are decided in secret. This has to change. Platforms must be transparent to their users, so that creators can make informed decisions about which platforms they choose to work with.

Fairness — creator platforms need to operate at a fair level of profitability. This will vary according to the platform, and how much value it is actually providing. But there has to be a fundamental principle of fair treatment. Creators must always receive as much of the income generated by their work as possible in a fair deal with platforms.

Equality — creators of all kinds make a vast contribution to society. Entire sectors of our economy exist only because creators dedicated entire lifetimes to new ideas. For every Turing, Tesla or Rowling, there are thousands of creators whose work will never reach its potential. A society that wants the benefits of creativity can’t condemn creators to poverty. Creator platforms must treat all creators equally, granting equal value to all forms of creativity and their potential, and striving to support and invest in creators at all levels of success.

I put the idea of a Bill of Rights for creators to you. I’ll try to respond to constructive comments here or on Twitter: Damien Walter

And yeah, sure, back my patreon.