Editor’s note: We like thinking through every area of culture here at Mere-O, which is why I’m delighted that we’re going to spend a little time talking about the way technological changes have affected people’s ability to make money–and what we should do about it. Matt Miller goes first, Stephen Carradini will write on Wednesday, and then on Friday they will do a dialogue on the issues that come up. Thanks for reading. — MLA
The Internet’s already over two decades old, and we still haven’t figured out how to cope with its potential for copyright infringement.
Any creative medium that can be digitally replicated finds itself in danger—music, film, photography, and every form of writing. Widespread pirating, Google Books, and other digital distribution methods threaten to make art something that consumers expect to get for free, always and everywhere.
Professionals in all these fields continue to feel acute anxiety at the potential that digital distribution could destroy their livelihood—and they’re right to feel this way. Similarly, anyone concerned about the ongoing artistic vitality of our culture should be concerned about a future in which it’s impossible to make a living in the arts. How are artists to make money when their work can be copied and distributed with such ease?
Many people have proposed or attempted solutions to the problem, but without much success or variation: in essence, all the proposals I have seen boil down to three approaches. And only one of the three, in my view, offers us any hopeful way forward.
The first approach is that most frequently taken by the big media companies: find a way to regain control over the means of copying and distribution. This might mean enhanced digital rights management (DRM) software; it might mean refusing to publish e-books; it might mean lobbying to enhance copyright law via SOPA/PIPA.
The problems with this solution are myriad, ranging from the rage you induce in consumers (and some artists) to lost revenue from refusing to engage in the digital market. Bottom line: increasing copy restriction doesn’t work, because those dedicated to circumventing DRM or copyright law are always more nimble than those dedicated to enforcing them.
The second approach has been advocated by a range of figures who have attained guru-like status with a certain audience, from Derek Webb to Seth Godin. The former filmmaker Tony Comstock (now a yacht captain known as David Ryan) sums this perspective up concisely, if with some contempt: “I was reading yet another article preaching give-it-away-for-free (the it being your book, your record, your film – your whatever could be digitized) and then sell your true fans the very special limited edition, gold foil wrapped, signed collector’s edition, or if not that, a t-shirt or a stuffed animal or whatever.” Artists are thus encouraged to use their art—the work of their hearts, if they’re any good—as a loss-leader to sell merchandise. Although this tactic might provide an artist a living, it’s hardly a recipe for a vibrant culture: it expects that we should get sublime art for free, while shelling out cash for a knick-knack. There’s something wrong with that equation. Comstock calls this strategy “at best . . . an ugly kludge,” and I’m inclined to agree.
The failure and artistic bankruptcy of these first two means of dealing with the digital revolution made David Lowery’s recent “Letter to Emily White at NPR All Songs Considered” all the more heartening. In his widely-distributed letter (which you should read in full if you haven’t), Lowery proposes not some technological or marketing gimmick to defeat the Internet—the first and second methods, in essence—but a moral re-education of the public. To the college intern White, he writes, “I also deeply empathize with your generation. You have grown up in a time when technological and commercial interests are attempting to change our principles and morality. Rather than using our morality and principles to guide us through technological change, there are those asking us to change our morality and principles to fit the technological change—if a machine can do something, it ought to be done. Although it is the premise of every ‘machines gone wild’ story since Jules Verne or Fritz Lang, this is exactly backwards.”
Lowery proposes no legal, technological, or practical solutions to digital copyright infringement: instead, he practices advocacy and moral education. In this, he demonstrates a more hopeful view of the public than either of the first two approaches. DRM, copyright, and loss-leader marketing assume that those who illegally get their art for free now will never be willing to cease their criminal ways—therefore they must be constrained into lawfulness or tricked into paying for another (less valuable, but also less copyable) product.
In contrast, Lowery’s advocacy assumes that people can be persuaded to change their behavior based on an ethical appeal. On this level alone, I’d be more inclined to favor Lowery’s advocacy over the other two solutions—I want to believe that people are capable of positive moral change, as the Gospel indeed suggests I must. But on a more practical note, I would suggest that Lowery’s tactic is actually more likely to work than DRM or loss-leader marketing. The ever-increasing growth of the organic and local food markets show us that people are indeed willing to pay when they are convinced that certain purchases are more ethically and culturally responsible than others. If artists can further Lowery’s moral advocacy, then, there may be hope for their careers as well as our cultural vitality.