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Moving away from ‘free culture’

A few weeks ago, Elmo Keep wrote a fantastic piece on Junkee outlining ‘the case against free’.

Moving away from ‘free culture’


A few weeks ago, Elmo Keep wrote a fantastic piece on Junkee outlining ‘the case against free’. Her argument, which any reasonable person should agree with, is that, in torrenting ebooks and songs and movies and television shows, we are actively ‘choosing to attribute no value to what people create’. Yes, we can justify our piracy however we’d like (Elmo gives the example of the misinterpreted rally cry: ‘information wants to be free!’), but every piece of culture we steal makes it difficult for artists and producers to create more of it.

In a follow-up piece, Elmo explored a couple of ideas for moving away from the ‘Free Economy’. One was for producers to adopt a direct-to-audience model in order to wrest control away from technology companies like Amazon, Spotify, Google and Apple. I think that’s a great idea: tech companies, as a rule, don’t care about delivering a fair price to content creators, which makes listening to a track on Spotify only barely more profitable for a musician than having that same track pirated. The other solution, which I didn’t find as compelling, was for consumers to simply ‘get used to paying more for digital goods than we have been, because they are worth a lot more than what we have been paying’.

The problem is that we all recognise that the Free Economy is broken, but, as consumers, we face a prisoner’s dilemma situation: because there’s no clear incentive for any individual consumer to pay, nobody pays, which means we all end up getting screwed when artists are no longer able to create the content we enjoy. We recognise this, but we still often don’t pay, or pay too little. Producers can bump the price of ebooks and songs up to cover shrinkage, but they generally don’t, because they recognise that once they bump their prices up too high, they’ll simply lose to piracy customers who were previously willing to pay.

Conventionally, it’s been suggested that there are only two real solutions to the piracy problem: either we accept the Free Economy, or we use the legal system to crack down on piracy (remember how that turned out?). Elmo’s alternative is educating consumers, in the hope that it will lead to reform. I think that’s overly wishful. If we want to push people away from the Free Economy, the reality is that we have to play to their self-interest. We need a carrot as well as a stick.

The core issue with our creative economy is that, in general, it still operates on a model in which a creative good is first created and then it is sold. The publisher or studio advances the creator enough money to create the book or television show, and only then the consumer is asked to pay for it. Kickstarter (which Elmo is skeptical of), is successful because it flips things in the opposite direction: the buyer is not only purchasing a creative good, but is also helping to enable that creative good to be brought into existence in the first place. It’s impossible, after all, to torrent a book that hasn’t been written; and if the only way to ensure that book can be written is to pay up, you pay.

Seriously, it bears repeating: we need to create stuff only after we get paid for it, not before. If we create great work and send it out into the world using a delivery mechanism conducive to piracy, it’s no wonder we end up getting screwed. As creators, we need to think smarter.

Even if you’re a relatively unknown creator, I suspect there are ways to make the ‘create after payment’ system work in your favour. Write half your book, sell it – accepting that some people may pirate it – and then hold the rest for ransom. (I suspect there are ways to do this gracefully.) If you’re a musician, make people pay for your album before you record it, and outline clearly your costs and why your work will be great. I certainly don’t believe every creative project can be crowdfunded, and I’m ultimately not sold by Amanda Palmer’s notion that creators should, essentially, resort to begging in order to offset losses to piracy (Palmer’s philosophy is based on her own unique, unreplicable experience).

All this said, I believe we have created a system (the web, combined with a creative economy in which works are created before they’re sold) that promotes piracy of cultural work. That’s bad, but it means we can probably create a new system that promotes consumers paying creators a fair price for their work. I know it sounds like a cop-out, and Elmo will hate me for saying this, but those who steal aren’t necessarily immoral: they’re just users of a shitty system that conditions them to believe piracy is virtuous. The system is the problem. Let’s start there.