10 July 2010

Pirates, Part 2

Mr. Fweem very nicely elaborated on my previous post, from his perspective as both a consumer and creator of creative work. I started to write a long comment to his post, but decided to take it back here. So first, read his post. Then read the article he links to by Tony Woodlief.

I think Woodlief's article illustrates again in a number of ways that this is not primarily (or at least, generally not perceived as) a battle between creators and consumers of creative work, so much as between consumers and the corporations who control and exploit creators' work. Woodlief is not criticizing Joe Henry over wanting outrageous fees for citing one line of one song, but rather "his record label's parent company." Who is not looking after Mr. Henry, but after their bottom-line. That, at least, underlies Woodlief's argument and reflects general public sentiment. To me, the first element of copyright reform is ensuring that copyright protections benefit creators, not corporations that make billions by exploiting artists for their sweat and genius. I use the term exploitation frequently, but not lightly. For the uninitiated, see producer Steve Albini's classic "The Problem with Music" (profanity warning) or, more recently, Tim Quirk's drama with Warner Music over at Too Much Joy.

Everyone is in favor of compensating creators, of course. And when the composer in my original article started contacting traders of his music, saying it was not cool, most of them quickly apologized and took his work down. Of the 400 or so take-down letters sent, just one dumb teenager wanted to argue about it. The question for me and, clearly, many other people is not about supporting creators, but whether both creators and consumers should permit themselves to be victimized by corporate exploitation when they have the ready means to render those corporations irrelevant. The consensus is clearly that we shouldn't, and that this is about both parties.

On the other hand, I don't personally believe that creators have any "right to expect -- and receive -- some kind of remuneration for their creativity." And I say that as a creator. All of us are creators; creative work flows naturally from the act of humans living life. Almost none of it will ever be compensated and only the market can determine what of it has economic value. I think (e.g.) my daughter's hand-drawn Father's Day cards should have the market value of a Picasso, but I doubt the market would ever agree.

No creative act has any inherent monetary value, and the work or lack of work that goes into creative endeavor does not change that fact. Otherwise, explain Jackson Pollock to me. If we create something and no one will pay to enjoy it, that's either a market or marketing failure. It's certainly not a creative failure, though it can feel like that. Many of us choose to distribute our creative work freely because we would rather it be enjoyed by anyone with any interest than restrict it to those (typically very few) with interest enough to pay. The internet gives you more options in both those respects. Go internet.

But I hold all creative acts as being strictly equal, as creative acts. Market value measures only popularity. Someone once asked a famous songwriter what makes a song a classic. He replied, "Repetition." Classics are first and foremost marketing successes. Some also happen to be works of genius, but most are not. And copyright law is not for the fostering of genius, but for the fostering of marketing success. Marketing success may or may not itself foster creative genius, but judging from the quality of most corporate art, I'd say mostly not.

An example of my ideal. Twice in the last month I've gone to see a local band called Gypsy Cab, which is just one genius blues guitarist (Pat) and his drummer (Jesse). Pat is an 18 year-old who plays original electric blues on $200 Squier guitars through one very loud Fender Twin and smokes 98% of the guitarists I have ever heard. I paid to see them and I will again. I'm dying for CD. And a T-Shirt. I'll pay for those, too. And anything else they want to sell me. No corporations need to get involved. I'll just give them my money.


Mister Fweem said...

Well said, my man. But still, don't you think that at the point that repetition begins to occur with a creative work that the creator deserves compensation? Where I have a bone to pick with the "pirates" is when they want the repetition without the compensation. Some of the repetition/compensation gets ridiculous, I have to agree (college textbooks come to mind).

I can't treat all creative acts as equal. As a writer, I know most of the writing I do, although it is creative, is throwaway stuff. I spent nearly ten years working at newspapers, and getting paid for writing. I can probably count on two hands the number of articles I remember with fondness, out of the countless number I wrote. Still, those that I recall are golden to me. They show that out of the mountain of written crap I produce, there are a few nuggets of gold.

Same goes when you're writing a novel. Lots of creativity gets poured into that process, even though most of what's written is "throwaway." (Ray Bradbury famously wrote that to find the 5 percent of your writing that's good, you have to write the 95 percent that's crap.) The throwaway stuff has no value except to get the bad ideas and bad writing out of the way, so the good stuff can come. Then there's the nuggets. You don't sift through tons of dirt just to give the nuggets away.

carl g said...

I'm not sure I have a good solution to this whole problem, or even a consistent and useful philosophical perspective. What I was mostly saying here is that creator compensation is primarily tied to a market and should be fairly tied to that market, without creators being fleeced by corporate monopolies.

When I said all creative acts are equal, as creative acts, that was me expressing the mysterious nature of creativity. I've seen works of pure accident hailed as genius and works of genius broadly dismissed. I'm often at a loss for how to evaluate creative acts, as creative acts, so my position is that at birth they are all equal. Only post-creative evaluation, heavily conditioned by culture, invests them with value. It's a post-modern perspective, admittedly, love it or hate it.

Anyway, most creative acts that are celebrated as creative acts are not really that creative, in any pure sense, because mostly they are just the very familiar rearranged in a pleasing way. REAL creativity is rarely rewarded on any level. It's too strange, disturbing, alien, dissonant. That's why you spend most of your time being trained as a creative professional not actually being creative, but learning conventions. All creators are rip-off artists, on every possible level, and you have to be.

So if that is a fact (I think it is), who deserves compensation and how is it determined? Does J.K. Rowling really deserve to be richer than the Queen of England for a handful of derivative and inartful juvenile novels, while very numerous writers of genuine talent can't turn a penny off their work?

The repetition standard you suggest raises a good question, but I don't know how you implement it when repetition is easy, free, and done by almost everyone without consequences. For example, I've sung "Happy Birthday" dozens of times, publicly. This is a violation of copyright law, on the same level as downloading (pirating) an ebook without compensating the copyright holder. Licensing the right to perform "Happy Birthday" is so outrageously expensive that you will almost never see it performed on TV, etc. The copyright holders feel it is their right to demand high compensation (ca. $10,000 a pop), given its universal popularity. I can't disagree, but I never feel I should cut them a check whenever I publicly perform it, as they rightly demand. Why is that? Doesn't the "creator" deserve compensation for something literally everyone uses?

I think everything on the internet is headed in the same direction as "Happy Birthday." Guilt-free use of copyrighted material by everyone all the time. We're already an "infringement nation." I think one solution is a very old old one, still found everywhere. Patronage. Creators should be paid to create up front to create, which I think produces far richer results anyway. But that's another post.

If you haven't read Tehranian's "Infringement Nation," here it is:


I've probably linked this before. Sorry.

Mister Fweem said...

I'll have to give that a read. We certainly are going through a media revolution not seen since the folio was developed in Italy way back then, and made ideas and books so cheap that printers were absolutely floored on what to do about it.