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Why Content Is a Public Good

Hi there! I'm Mili. I released a little thought of mine into the wild that is my LiveJournal the other night, and Charlie found it and liked it and very kindly invited me to repost it here.

This post has been two years in the making. I had the insight for it about two years ago and have been meaning to blog about it since then, all the time wondering why no one has twigged this yet, or whether they have and were too scared to say, or whether I just didn't know that they had. Anyway, what with the Digital Economy Bill having become the Digital Economy Act last week, it's about bloody time I get my act together and put this out there.

So, let's have a bit of economics to start with. Because this is what's it's all about - the money, the economic incentives and the economic possibilities; and because I'm an economist by training, though I don't like to admit to it most days.

There's a theory in economics about things called "public goods". To understand the distinction between private goods, public goods and the couple of shades of grey in between, you first need to get your head around two concepts: rival and excludable.

Rival: (Wikipedia seems to call this "rivalrous", but when I were a young economist lass we used to call it rival so I'll stick with that.) A good is rival if my consumption of it diminishes the amount of the good that you can consume. Say we had 10 apples, and I ate one. There would now be 9 apples left which you could eat. If we had one apple and I ate all of it, tough luck, no apples for you. Knowing whether a good is rival or not tells you whether you want to use the market (if I were a good economist that would possibly be capital-M Market ;-) to allocate access to that good. If it's rival, then the market is an efficient way of allocating the good; if it's not, then you might want to think about other ways of getting your good to people. Remember that scary anti-piracy clip at the start of your DVDs which says "You wouldn't steal a handbag"? Hold that thought for a minute.

Excludable: A good is excludable if you physically have a way of stopping people from consuming it. Back to the apples: if they're in my fridge, inside my locked house and you don't have a key, you can't have my apples. (Yes, yes, you could break in. The law provides additional protection here, but ultimately there's probably a better way for you to obtain an apple than breaking into my house, right?) Knowing whether a good is excludable tells you whether you can use the market to distribute the good. If your good is excludable, go ahead and sell it on the open market; if it's not - you might struggle because you can't stop people from just taking it for free.

So. Most of the goods you deal with in your day-to-day life are both rival and excludable. We call them pure private goods. But there's a few things here and there that aren't as clear-cut, and this is where it gets a little messy.

If a good is rival, but not excludable, we call it a common good. In that case, we want to use the market to allocate that resource but it's actually quite difficult to do. Fish in the sea is a good example: my overfishing the seas stops you from being able to fish and leads to long-term damage to fish stocks, yet it's remarkably difficult to stop me from doing it using just market tools.

If a good is non-rival but excludable, we call it a club good. The classic example given in economics textbooks is cable television but I'm going to steer away from that for reasons which will become obvious. A better example for me is a golf course. My wandering around hitting a ball with a stick does not diminish your ability to do the same (as long as there's not thousands of us in the same place), and with a judicious application of fences I can stop you from coming in and therefore charge you money for the privilege (i.e. use the market). Is that the most efficient allocation of golf courses? Not necessarily, but it works, more or less, because they're excludable and therefore we can use the market.

Here's the important part: a good that is neither rival nor excludable is called a pure public good, and the market is neither a practical nor an efficient way of allocating that good. The textbook example here is national defence. I'm in the UK, so are you; the UK has an army which protects us both (Theoretically speaking - this is not about the value or otherwise of the army, kay?), no matter what either of us do. Purely by virtue of being here we benefit from it - there's no way of stopping one of us from benefiting from defence, nor does my enjoyment of this good in any way diminish yours.

So, to recap, for pure private goods, the market is both a practical and efficient way of allocating resources, and that's what we do most of the time. As soon as we move away from the pure private good paradigm, either because our good is non-rival or non-excludable or both, the market ceases to look like a good idea. In practice, what happens is that we try to use technical and/or legislative means to help us approximate private goods when dealing with any type of not purely private good. We can, for instance, make it a crime to overfish the seas, or put fences around our golf course to stop people from overrunning it without paying; we can make it a crime not to pay the tax that contributes to running the armed forces. (Oh and, incidentally, using a public-type good without paying your dues is called "free-riding". It's something economists are obsessed with stopping.)

Okay, enough with the theory. Let's look at content in practice. Remember that little clip at the start of your legally purchased DVD that delays your enjoyment of the film you've paid to see to tell you about how you wouldn't steal a handbag and thus should not steal a movie either? If you've been paying attention you should by now have spotted that these two things (the handbag and the movie) are not alike. If I steal a handbag it stops you from having it; if I download a movie from Piratebay, there is nothing that stops you from enjoying that same movie (either by getting it from Piratebay yourself or by forking out 20 quid at HMV or a fiver at Tesco's). In other words, while handbags are rival, movies aren't.

Hold the rotten tomatoes. I am not saying that stealing a movie is a victimless crime, or that it's not stealing, or that the people who make the movies shouldn't get paid because I can get my movie off Piratebay. What I'm doing is describing the behaviour of movies as goods in economic terms. We'll come to the moralising in a bit.

What's been happening over the last 10 or 15 years is that it's become progressively more difficult to make content (such as movies or music or cable television) excludable. Thanks to progress in technology, such as making the media via which content is distributed cheaper, faster and easier to copy, if I want to watch a movie tonight I don't have to go to the cinema or to HMV to obtain it, I can just stay in the comfort of my own home and download it from the internet. This kind of progress isn't new. Remember how home taping was killing music? Same phenomenon really, but the internet has just scaled it up by a factor of 1 with lots of zeros on the end. In the 1980s, if I bought an album and then made a copy on tape for my friends, there were only a limited number of people I could distribute those tapes to: 5, 10, 100 if I tried really hard and didn't mind forking out money for the blank tapes. Along came Napster, and all of a sudden my copy of The Black Album could be accessed by millions of people at no marginal cost whatsoever.

Remember how, to make public-type goods behave more like private goods, we use technology or legislation? The content distributors made DRM, we cracked DRM, they made more DRM, we cracked it again, rinse, repeat. Turns out technology wasn't very good at this. The other tool in the box is of course legislation. Copyright laws already existed and, let's face it, we'd already been breaking them cheerfully for years (see home taping) before Napster made an appearance - at least in part because copyright legislation isn't fit for purpose (see breaking the law by ripping your CD to put it on your iPod). So the content distributors (distributors, not creators - important distinction) lobbied our elected representatives to tie our hands even more using legislation. The DMCA was born, and more recently the Digital Economy Act. Other countries, too, are reviewing their copyright provisions. There's been a recent government consultation in Canada, and ACTA is on its way. (I trust you can google DMCA and ACTA if you're not familiar with them.)

Here's the thing though: no amount of legislation will put that particular genie back in its box. Or at least no amount of legislation that is either acceptable in a democratic society (Yes, the Digital Economy Act arguably crosses that line already, but it's easily circumvented by technological means and I certainly don't believe we can go much further beyond the line.) or cost-effective to enforce. Content has never been a rival good and recent technological progress has made it, for all intents and purposes, non-excludable. It's time to face the music: Content is a public good.

Here's what this doesn't mean: It doesn't mean content is free (Cleverer people than me have explained why information doesn't want to be free.), or cheap to make (though it can be), or that content creators should not get rewarded for their efforts.

And here's what it does mean: It means that old business models based on content being a club good simply don't work. It means we have to rethink our relationship with content - as creators, as distributors and as consumers. It means that there are a lot of giants in the content distribution industry whose livelihoods (profit margins) are being pulled out from under them faster than they can say "illegal downloads", and they are fighting it. Of course they're fighting it. They've had an incredibly profitable business model for about a century and suddenly they don't. Let's face it, human beings don't like change at the best of times, and we sure as hell don't like it when it means less cash in our pockets.

And here's what it also means: Content creators have direct access to content consumers (see "we have to rethink our relationship" above). There's a myriad of ways to create, promote and make available your content; and those are just the ones we've thought of so far - more are coming. While old industries may be victims of change, the money that previously went to them is being redistributed, creating new industries. For most of us, this is something to get excited about. (And even for David Geffen it's an opportunity to come up with something new and shiny and exciting, if he only took it!)

So what does the future of content look like? The short answer is that I don't know, but here are a few guesses and extrapolations from what I'm seeing already.

There is by now more than just anecdotal evidence that, for certain types of content at least, putting it up for free on the internet will actually increase your sales. Books are a good example here and Cory Doctorow demonstrates this quite nicely - all his books are available for free from his website and he's selling loads of them. (I suspect part of the reason why this works so nicely with books is that we bibliophiles already have a special relationship with dead-tree versions of things, we like to own them, and we like to support the people who create them. It's in the culture.)

Putting your stuff up for free on the internet does two things. Firstly, it helps you reach a wider audience. A lot of people who wouldn't fork out the best part of a tenner on a book or CD will happily download it for free. They might find they like the book or CD, and that might make them pay up, or it might make them recommend it/share it with their friends, and some of them might pay up. Secondly, it allows you to price-discriminate in the most finely-tuned way possible - it allows you to charge every single person who comes across your content exactly what they're willing to pay for it. This is actually a good thing for content creators: it maximises your (the creator's) profits while the consumer pays for the content according to how much they value it - no more, no less. This may mean I get lots more content more cheaply now, or I focus on giving my favourite artists more money - the choice is up to me. (Price discrimination is traditionally seen as Evil by economists who believe in the Market. In many cases it is. In this case... I have yet to see an argument to convince me.)

I think another trend we're likely to see is a move away from big blockbuster type content (bands like Metallica, or the Foo Fighters, movies like Avatar, big-budget TV shows, etc.) towards a wider range of smaller artists. Being a rock star may not make one or two bands a year hugely, astronomically rich, but more artists should hopefully be able to make a living off their art.

We're going to see a wider variety of distribution models. My favourite example at the moment is the just-released Indelicates album which comes as a "pay-what-you-like" download, CD, iTunes type formats, CD plus various levels of extras such as art books, and the super special edition where Julia and Simon Indelicate rock up at your house, perform the album, record the performance and sign over the rights to the master. (I'm thinking that'd make a great 30th birthday present - hint-hint...) Amanda Palmer is also experimenting with different ways of making money, including pay-what-you-like releases and webcasts where she auctions off her finance's daughter. Ditto Zoe Keating. Kickstarter looks like a great way of funding art too.

Consumers' relationship with art and artists will change. It will be a lot more direct. Art isn't the shiny disc that you buy from Tesco's anymore. It's the project that your favourite artist announces on their blog and asks you for funding and posts updates about and that you wait for with increasing excitement. How we find new artists we like will change. I did a little calculation back in February on how much money I'd spent on music over the previous 6 months, and had to stop counting at the 300 quid mark lest I gave myself a heart attack. Of all of the musicians whose music I bought, I'd only discovered one or two through the radio (and that was Radio 4, so they, too, were fairly obscure). One set were street musicians whose CD I bought. A few I'd discovered through other artists I liked (Amanda Palmer through Neil Gaiman, Zoe Keating and the Indelicates through Amanda Palmer, etc.). One CD I'd meant to buy for a while and was prompted by seeing the artist in an episode of a TV series which I'd nabbed from Piratebay. A substantial number I discovered through friends pointing me in their direction and giving me free samples to listen to.

Of course there will be free-riders. Not everyone will pay for the content they download for free, even if they really like it. But those people might point their friends in the direction of that artist. (There's a reason why I'm plugging a bunch of artists in the previous paragraph. ;-) And even if they don't, you know what? That's okay too. As long as there are enough of us willing to pay for our art so that artists can make a living, that's fine. It'll be a bit like public services: some people pay their taxes, some people find all the loopholes, some people claim more benefits than they're allowed. It's not always 100% fair, but in the grand scheme of things, it works.

I think the sooner artists start engaging with their fanbase in a direct way and looking for creative ways to distribute their art, the more successful they will be. Content consumers need re-educating, and those artists who reach out to do that education first will be ahead of the game. Those who hide behind their record labels, sue their fans and see them as the enemy... well, we'll see, but I ain't buying CDs from Metallica anymore - haven't ever since they helped shut down Napster.

The distribution models I've talked about don't necessarily suit all types of media. They work well for books and music, they may not work well for the type of TV and movies that we're currently used to. But we're already seeing innovation in those sectors too (Hulu, or being able to buy individual episodes of series from iTunes). It'll come.

Bottom line: change is happening. There will be winners and losers, it'll be a long and difficult process. But the sooner we collectively stop sticking our heads in the sand and admit that content is a public good, and that that puts some responsibility on consumers too, the sooner we can start figuring out - together, rather than as enemies - what we want the future to look like.

127 Comments

1:

What do you think of flattr's model? (http://flattr.com/) It looks like it might work to me, although only if it were promoted by a big site like the guardian or someone.

2:

If content becomes a pure public good, isn't it likely to end up the same way as many other public goods: either undersupplied or government-funded?

The implication of your story might be that entertainament and art ends up the way science did: made by universities with grants from National Science Foundations etc.

I guess the BBC resembles this already. Perhaps in the future most authors will be paid by the National Writing Foundation?

3:

What's wrong with government funding?

Seriously, what's wrong with it?

I hear this objection repeatedly but I never seem to get a clear explanation of why government subsidies for the arts make the Baby Jesus cry.

4:

@zamfir: re, 'If content becomes a pure public good, isn't it likely to end up the same way as many other public goods: either undersupplied or government-funded?'

Short answer: No.

Those that end up under government mandate are the ones you hear about. Those that just work you don't hear about, because what would be the point of reporting them?

"In other news, the sun continued to shine on the earth. For more on this non-event, we turn to our environment reporter, Rain Windymere..."

@elmyra: What you said++. You have a brain...That is the sexy. I shall crib shamelessly from this post when next required to do Economics.

"Putting stuff on the 'net for free [increases sales]." see the google:[Baen Free Library], and Eric Flint's "Prime Palavar" entries thereon.

My apologies for the rather disjointed nature of this response, but frankly [what she said]++, and I just wanted to sneak in the Baen Free Library plug.

_rip

5:

In response to Charlie's question, I'll relay what a Norwegian author told me over a pint some weeks ago: apparently in Norway one can (rather easily) get money from the government for having written a novel. So there are quite a lot of "small-time" (no disrespect intended) authors in Norway who publish minimal print-runs and generate their main income from this government subsidy. The trouble is, in order to qualify for this payment, the work has to meet certain standards of decency and general worthwhileness. Which (in his words) leads to tons and tons of very tame and dull literature being published in Norwegian every year.

I have no idea whether this story is true (I live in Germany), never met the man before or after, but his story made sense to me at the time.

Still, I'm all for a stronger involvement of public money in the creation of the arts. That, coupled with micro-payments (interesting link to flattr.com there) and yes, even corporate sponsorship, makes a whole lot more sense to me than the current publishing nonsense.

6:

there are quite a lot of "small-time" (no disrespect intended) authors in Norway who publish minimal print-runs and generate their main income from this government subsidy. The trouble is, in order to qualify for this payment, the work has to meet certain standards of decency and general worthwhileness. Which (in his words) leads to tons and tons of very tame and dull literature being published in Norwegian every year.

Playing devil's advocate, however:-

Norway has a population of 5 million. Assuming overall literacy is at UK/US levels, that suggests a commercial author could earn maybe one tenth as much money from the Norwegian market as from the British one. Unless you're right at the top of your game it's impossible to make a living as a genre novelist in the UK without selling overseas. Those of us who do so are privileged by sharing a common language with the biggest, richest fiction market there is -- the USA. However, we, too have to meet (unwritten) standards: Americans have some weird political, cultural, and religious beliefs[*], and if you contradict them too openly you may suffer in the marketplace.

Norwegian authors don't have the luxury of self-censoring for US commercial consumption -- unless they write in English, and self-censor accordingly, they aren't going to get significant access to the English-speaking markets. At least the government subsidy means that there is a native Norwegian language fiction market (although the decency/worthiness standards, if strict, are a major problem for the arts: the arts don't flourish where transgression is heavily frowned upon).

[*] Most notably: that the American market system is the best form of economic arrangement, that the United States is free and democratic to an extent that makes it unique and singular in human history, that the United States would not ever and could not operate as an Imperial power, that religious belief is good and necessary and anyone without it is clearly bereft of moral foundations, etcetera. These are, if not universal, then commonly shared beliefs among the US population, and questioning them is guaranteed to take a certain percentage of your audience out of their comfort zone really fast.

7:

I doubt that Billy Bragg would make a great deal of money from government funding of art. Or the Sex Pistols, back in the day.

Having said that, Prokoviev and Shostakovich managed under Stalin---not comfortably, perhaps, but part of the reason the music is so amazing is that they were working within the restrictions of the time.

8:

Charlie@3:

There's nothing wrong with government funding (of course). But there are practical difficulties in monitoring and allocating the funding. Would it work like public lending right or more like the TV license? And if it worked like the PLR, how would you measure consumption across (say) video, music, and text?

It might actually be easier to pay everyone a guaranteed living wage and let them do what they like. No one would get rich from their art, but nobody would starve either.

--
Sam


9:

In fact, I'm gradually becoming convinced that "intellectual property" is a devastating flaw in capitalism. Consider: there is a whole class of stuff that's incredibly important both to individuals and to society but which, being intangible, cannot be owned and consequently has no value as property.

--
Sam

10:

Milena - respec' is due; you've voiced a disquiet I've felt for some considerable time with the way "copyright" law is being abused by "big business" and government.

The point (IMO) of copyright law was to protect the time that a writer, let's call him Charlie, put into writing a book, and the interests of his dependants in the event of his untimely death. It is not to protect the interests of "big business" and their outdated business models for evermore, to guarantee Charlie's grandchildren (if any) an income for life, or to prevent the publication of a certain individual's works.

And yes, making stuff available as "freeware" has been proven to work; it looks like I'll be the first to mention Jim Baen putting CDROM back catalogues of writer's works out with hard covers, licenced for free distribution, and getting increased sales as a result.

11:

Fine as far as it goes, but even though the Sex Pistols didn't make a great deal of money themselves, Malcolm McLaren did make a great deal of money from them.

12:

Let me just add one meta-comment: I am in two minds, because (a) I earn quite a reasonable living from the copyright status quo (more than I ever earned as a programmer, except when I was doing freelance contract work and charging through the nose), but (b) I share many of Mili's reservations about the applicability of property law to "intellectual property", and consider much of the post-1830s legislation around copyright to be rent-seeking abuse of the public interest organized by large corporate entities and their captive regulators.

So I'd love to see a better system, but plz can keep the vacations research trips to Japan?

13:

Milena appears to be driving at honesty and a personal desire to see your favourite content providers continue creating new work as the new economic model. I like the ideas proposed, but as always wonder if they'd work in practice.

Could content be publicly funded by groups of supporters as a social activity, or by the government as arts funding? Does this place additional restrictions upon the creativity of the content creator? Charlie's recent posts about the Publishing industry, and the comments here, suggest these already exist.

I wonder how many content creators would be happy with being assured a living wage and nothing more. Don't many bloggers, authors, musicians etc. enter the market with the hope that they might be the lucky ones to make it big?

14:

Excellently clear analysis, which is causing much revolving of thoughts in my head. Thanks to both of you!

Charlie @ 3: Because (1) who pays the pipers calls the tune; and (2) government is inherently monolithic; and (3) subsidized arts necessarily tend towards whatever politicians and bureaucrats think the public ought to get. My accountability as either artist or audience to the Ministry of Culture should be one big fat duck egg.

The bad, often deliberately ugly and 'challenging' public art traditionally dumped in my (poor, inner city) area for the unwanted edification of its inhabitants... tends to confirm my suspicions that the results aren't apt to be pretty.

Then there's the question as to where lies the sense, justice, or efficiency in government's controlling more closely the proportion of people's income they get to consume in one leisure pursuit rather than another. I don't want my book money confiscated to subsidize football; I don't want to confiscate somebody else's football money to subsidize my books. Setting aside the fact our political axioms are radically different, what is the positive argument in your terms for doing something like that?

From my point of view, the best way for a government to promote the arts would be to remove the needless costs and chilling effects that presently hamper them. Gold-plated elf-n-safety and expensive licensing arrangements, that chiefly bear down on mutual and non-corporate entertainment. Libel and liability laws from hell. Intellectual enclosure laws designed to make art as cartelized and capital-intensive as possible. The list is long.

Mili's analysis points towards what I'd like see evolving - a much greater freedom for the creative community, artists and audience together, to devise piecemeal the solutions that work for them. We are, after all, the people with the most pressing interests in getting it right!

A government which is moving in just the opposite direction, is most certainly not a government whose more direct influence on the arts I'd expect to be benign.

15:

The huge blind spot in these discussions is that there's a new breed of content distributors, one that has no need for any relationship with the content creators, whose business model is to commoditize the distribution of art as interchangeable data.

They have effectively usurped this ideal direct channel between the creator and the readership. It hasn't been about individual creator vs. media conglomerate for a long while now, it's between media conglomerate and filesharing portal with the creators trapped in the middle.

another trend we're likely to see is a move away from big blockbuster type content (bands like Metallica, or the Foo Fighters, movies like Avatar, big-budget TV shows, etc.)

People keep saying this, it's wishful thinking. What gets downloaded most is exactly what you'll see heavily marketed by traditional media and on the top100 charts.

And in fact, for a filesharing site Avatar (Or the blockbuster de jour) is probably the one movie in their database that is not interchangeable, since they get their traffic increases from people searching precisely for downloads of these heavily marketed behemoths.

Compare the traffic rankings of the CC torrent sites with the other ones.

16:

Worthwhile read, thanks for typing it up.

@GubmintGood: You'd be surprised what gets the stamp of approval for government funding in Norway. From my experience these projects are anything but dull, and rather quite obscure and inane (often why they need funding in the first place).

17:

The article is well argued but I believe you may be underestimating the free-rider affect.

An insidious effect of IP piracy is the change in the perceived value of said content. Rather than piracy being a minor infraction, zero pricing becomes the expectation.

The pirates I knew during my student years continue to do so a decade later despite their substantially increased income and now see it as absurd to visit the cinema for content they can access for free.

I would encourage you to enter "world of goo free experiment" into google and follow the first link. It describes the result of an experiment run by a small-time developer who briefly sold their game on a "pay what you want" basis.

While the experiment is dubbed a success due to the increased sales, I would be cautious about seeing similar results in a market where competitors offer the same offer.

18:

@ingulf: Just watched the Flattr video and I (personally) love it. Thanks for pointing me at it. It'll be interesting to see it develop.

19:

@Nestor: Well, it's not so much wishful thinking to be honest. I quite like, say, Lost and would like people to still be able to make shows like it in the future.

The big question is whether the funding/profit incentives for making things like Lost or Avatar will still be there, as people migrate from watching them through "legitimate" channels to filesharing. It's particularly challenging in television as people are used to be able to watch TV for "free" - what they pay in is not money but attention to adverts.

20:

@Chris M:

An insidious effect of IP piracy is the change in the perceived value of said content. Rather than piracy being a minor infraction, zero pricing becomes the expectation.

That's precisely what I mean when I say our relationship with content will have to change. We will have to realise that a zero pricing expectation is not realistic and not sustainable, and as responsbile consumers act accordingly and put our money where our mouth is. But I do realise that this is a long-term cultural shift, will not happen overnight, and if we get this wrong may not happen at all.

21:

Government funding? There's not enough of it to cover everything worthwhile, there can't be enough of it without ruinous taxation, and so someone has to allocate it. And not allocate it to things they don't like/don't want/don't understand/have been leant upon by populist MPs not to approve/haven't got to yet. And draw a salary to live on (usually sliced off the top of the funding pool) while they're at it.

Most democratic systems have a dozen layers of human insulation between the-people-whom-you-directly-can-fire-by-electing-replacements and the allocating official(s). The resulting feedback loops are noisy and arthritic, if they're negative at all.

I'd rather just have consumers open their own wallets and pay up for stuff they like, want, or need. Yes, that includes me.

22:

Speaking of long term cultural shifts, when the example of a golf course was mentioned, I couldn't help thinking just how ALIEN that concept would be to most societies that have existed and some that still do. Rolling hills of open uncultivated land, privately owned and restricted to only a few people playing an obstruse game.

The very concept of land ownership is quite as artificial as ownership of intellectual content, but it's older and more established.

23:

Government funding? There's not enough of it to cover everything worthwhile, there can't be enough of it without ruinous taxation, and so someone has to allocate it. And not allocate it to things they don't like/don't want/don't understand/have been leant upon by populist MPs not to approve/haven't got to yet. And draw a salary to live on (usually sliced off the top of the funding pool) while they're at it.

Everything you say is true for science funding, yet it appears to work well. Of course, it would be great if there was basic market mechanism that efficiently allocated funds to science production based on its merits as perceived by society. But there is no such mechanism, so we have to have something else in its place.

Milli Popeva describes why there might soon not be any such a mechanism either for art in its widest sense. In that case, "open their own wallets and pay up for stuff they like" is not going to work.

24:

A very well thought out piece, one I'm very much on the side of. What's interesting though is that people are approaching this model of content creation and funding as if it's new - it's not. In essence it's much older than the current model. We're talking essentially about a patronage scheme. The court musician being funded to write as long as he turns out a decent coronation anthem from time to time. The court astronomer being kept in telescopes and laudanum provided he's useful.

I don't mean to make that sound a bad thing. It's a model we can massively improve on now, because we can employ micro-patronage. Rather than having to have one person wealthy enough to pay Handel, we can have 20k people wealthy enough to give Handel a couple of quid. It was impractical in Georg Freidrichs time but it isn't now.

People do naturally like to support creativity (or at least enough of them do that it could work). There are businesses waiting to be created purely around the funding models themselves - micro-patronage organisers/aggregators, funding model innovators (I'll sell advertising futures for this as yet uncreated work given x conditions, etc.)

One last thing, to "ahd". Government funding models could change if people were spending less money on content directly. Would people be willing to pay more tax if they now had access to any music for free? I certainly would. It's only the same as a Spotify subscription run by a different type of body.

25:

I was once at a talk by RMS where someone asked him a question and included the phrase "intellectual property". RMS stopped him and said "I find that when someone says 'intellectual property' they are trying to confuse someone, either they are trying to confuse you or they are trying to confuse themselves. Now, do you want to talk about copyright, patents, trademarks or industrial secrets?"

The post is that 'intellectual property' is NewSpeak. You can't own an idea - they are (nods to Mili) non rival and only excludable by collaboration of everyone who knows. Saying 'intellectual property' is trying to get you to believe that ideas can be owned, which is, clearly nonsense. Say 'intellectual property' five times and then tell me how many fingers I'm holding up...

The correct, not rhetoric usage of the term 'intellectual property' is to refer to a group of disparate government enforced monopolies. Each of these has a different use and is for a different purpose. None of them is based on the idea that knowledge is `owned' by anyone. They are there to encourage people to invent and to create `content' and to help businesses grow and prosper. By lumping these together and labeling it 'intellectual property' people are trying to get you to believe there is some unified principle of ownership of knowledge and that it is controlled by some nebulous cloud of law that allows them to control you because of what you know. This is absolute boulderdash. The separate areas are all based on simple, fixed principles and the law on them is clear.

So next time you hear anyone say 'intellectual property' think: Who are they trying to confuse?

26:

If content becomes a pure public good, isn't it likely to end up the same way as many other public goods: either undersupplied or government-funded?

And the problem with government funding is…?

27:

I agree that things get confused, copyright with trademarks and patents and what have you, in these debates but also all kinds of forms of art and creative expression get muddled together when even in a single artform the methods and processes used can mean say (As our host has explained in previous posts) a short story is a completely different beast from a full novel. And that's within the same medium of prose narrative.

The commodizing filesharers want every kind of art known to man reduced to it's weight in bytes and handwave wildly differing methods of creation with stuff like "Let them give live concerts"

28:

I've long thought the only model that really works in the download world is to give away 2/3rds of a downloaded book, with the final 1/3rd being available as a paid for download (cheaper than current prices, cutting out some of the middlemen that Charlie talks about).

Sure people can still rip it off, but they can do that anyway. However what an eReader does give you is access to immediate gratification via download purchase - and I think that would more than make up for in the reduction of purchase price. 'Upgrading' to a dead paper version is then just a matter of format cost. The model extends to any content type relatively easily, as it does to time dependent pricing.

Think of it as the equivalent of passing the hat around during a street performance, just before the spectacular ending.

29:

Another new business model that is gaining some steam in the niche role-playing game market (and possibly elsewhere, but I'm familiar with RPGs) is the patronage model.

For an upfront fee, you not only help fund a particular creative project but depending on the amount, you can have varying levels of creative influence. Of course, there is the balance between creative influence by patrons and design by committee, but a handful are finding some success with it. In particular Wolfgang Baur of Open Design is quickly growing thanks to the patronage model and have several books done under this model.

He also puts market forces at work in offering several competing ideas he would like to work on and seeing which gets funded first.

30:

Hey Mili (and Charlie),

Have you seen magnatune.com?

"Why Magnatune is not evil

We select the most amazing independent musicians and offer you unlimited listening and downloading for just $15/month. Downloads are super high quality MP3s and perfect WAV files. Musicians get paid 50%, split evenly from what you listen and download."

I've been subscribed there for a year or two now, partly 'cause I've discovered some great new music there, but at least as much because I like the idea of their business model...

Iain

31:

It might be instructive to look at photography. Digital photography and the rise of sites like Flickr has made it easy for people to get high-quality images for free, either honestly by asking the amateur who is thrilled at being published ("OMG!!! I'm in print!!!!"), or by simply taking the image and hoping they won't notice (or won't be able to sue).

This has squeezed professional photographers. The barriers to entry have dropped, and the returns have as well.

32:

Here's an interesting graphic comparing how many sales in different media/distribution channels it takes a musician to earn the same income.

http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/2010/how-much-do-music-artists-earn-online/

Links to the data used in the article.

I'd be curious if there was similar data for other artistic fields.

33:

FWIW, here's a working musician's rebuttal of the assumptions and methodology used in that graphic:

http://www.stevelawson.net/2010/04/how-do-musicians-earn-online/

Iain

34:

#30 This has squeezed professional photographers. The barriers to entry have dropped, and the returns have as well

Sure, but there's a fundamental difference between, say, "Saturn's Children", and the F-15E photos I shot at "Low Flying Corner" last week. Only one person has ever written the book, but there are literally hundreds of photos of the upper surfaces of F-15Es taking the turn there. The supply of photos is much higher, so the laws of supply and demand naturally cause the price people will pay for an image of a specific type to fall.

35:

Why should an artist have to go to a portal like magnatune and give them 50% of his earnings for giving them content?

Far too many creative people online fall over themselves to put their content up on portals because that's where the audience is without realizing they bring the audience with them and they are contributing to a process that eclipses their role in the creation of the content.

I see increasingly people identifying the portals not the artists with certain types of content, "deviantart" or "fanfiction.net" stuff

The graph posted is accurate in that online royalties can be starvation wages, what the creators aren't realizing is there are all kinds of sideline revenue streams they're sacrificing piecemeal when they submit to these 3rd party intermediaries in a context where intermediaries were supposed to be obsolete.

36:

Nestor: .Why should an artist have to go to a portal like magnatune and give them 50% of his earnings for giving them content?

*Rolls eyes*

Because the biggest enemy of all artists -- except the ones at the very top: I'm talking Madonna or U2 or Stephen King here -- is obscurity. The public won't buy their content if they don't know it exists. And they won't know it exists if they don't hear about it via advertising, stumble across it while browsing, or get a recommendation by word of mouth. Advertising is expensive and word of mouth is subject to the chicken-and-egg problem, which leaves "stick the work somewhere folks are likely to stumble across it", i.e. on a portal.

37:

Well, if we mention RMS, we should perhaps also mention Free Software... at this stage it's already pretty obvious that Free Software (produced by the Open Source method) is gradually out-competing proprietary software. Is it optimal? Probably not. But it only needs to be better than the available alternatives.

I would guess that music is roughly at the stage where software was a couple of decades ago. This article's "I don't know, but here are a few guesses and extrapolations" is quite similar in feel to various essays written a couple of decades ago; read RMS's "GNU Manifesto" and compare it to this discussion, substituting "music" for "software". You will not need to change much else!

Will we find something like Open Source for producing music? I don't know. However, to paraphrase Eben Moglen, I think we'll find that if we wrap the Internet around every person on the planet and spin the planet, music will flow in the network.

We are humans. We are creative. I don't know whether we'll create optimally, but we only need to out-create decay — and there's very little decay in the digital realm.

38:

Hi, Milli. I'd like to use your blog post in my intro econ class...it's the best and clearest explanation and discussion of the issues I've seen. Thanks.

Don Coffin
Indiana University Northwest

39:

The only problem I see with government funding is that it hands over the issue what classifies as art/reasonable content to the government. Could be a problem, depending on the way it is done.

If it is done like the VG Wort (a copyright agent) system here in Germany, it could be doable (roughly: you get money for articles and books published in print, recently also online, if you tell VG Wort about them, and if they are published by a real publisher (ISBN/ISSN), can be found in libraries - I only know about scientific articles, but I guess the standard for journalistic articles and fiction is similiar - etc. Money for online articles is paid if they get more than 1500 counts on a counting pixel per year (and if they are more than 1800 chars long)). VG Wort collects money for every copy machine, printer etc. (maybe even from libraries?) and redistributes this money to authors. A scientific book is payed with something like 350 Euros, IIRC.

That's not much, but if one increases the monetarian input into VG Wort, the same distribution system could distribute more money to authors.

An even bigger solution to the problem with content as public good would be a general basic income - but that's another topic.

40:

> The only problem I see with government funding is that it
> hands over the issue what classifies as art/reasonable
> content to the government. Could be a problem, depending on
> the way it is done.

s/art/science/ and yes it is. Go look up 'EPSRC Impact Plans'. Equally well, at the heart of this is a horrendously intractable problem -- how do you assess the impact / value of intellectual work before it is done?

It strikes me that for questions about government . centralised funding, one needs to draw a line between 'popular culture' (which is what the arguments about business models and copyright are about) and 'fine art' which is already using many of these models.

41:

@Donald: I'm incredibly flattered. Do you mind dropping me an email to talk details please? elmyra at rockus dot at. :-)

42:

@Zamfir: In the US right now, I'd say that government funding is pushing towards broken, as is corporate funding. This isn't an ideological argument, just a not that NSF funding is down to <5% of projects proposed, the amount of money that universities expect their scientists to bring in is up, and private funding comes with interesting non-disclosure strings attached. Since I've already been pressured to fudge data on government funded research--also known as "we have to have positive results from this, or we'll never get funded again"-- I'd say that the US science system is in that metastable state right before it breaks, and most professor types spend as much (or more) time fundraising as they do on research. The other problem with this is that the system runs on a surplus of disposable grad students and postdocs, 90 percent of whom will never get tenure or a stable job in their chosen field.

This has some important implications for writers.

One thing Charlie's failed to mention in commenting on this is that he's not "THE" creator of his works. He's the creative part of a collective that includes his editors and marketers. He has noted that his products would suffer if he had to do every function himself.

Getting this collective money to live on--that's the problem.

As many other writers have noted, most science fiction authors do not support themselves on their work, most SF authors who have published one work never publish another, and <10% go on to have careers that are successful by any metric. These numbers already look like what's going on in the sciences. I'd hate to see it get worse.

If we go to competitive public funding, what we're going to see are more Clive Cusslers and James Pattersons. Without commenting on their writing, these are authors who have mastered the marketing game, and their work is at least partially written by other people, following the professor and grad student model. While this is doable, it also wastes a lot of talent and limits what we read to things that can be easily publicized and/or summarized for grant apps. Moreover, I doubt Charlie would want to become a "tenured author" with a group of apprentices writing his work for them while he performed QA/QC and marketed them under his imprint.

Speaking selfishly, I think we need to figure out system(s) to help the creative types make a living off doing what they do best, and it's not yet clear how that happens in public good system. The one thing I do know is that government funding following the sciences probably won't work as well as some might think.

43:

@heteromeles As long as this work as "tenured author" includes the creation of Shiny Unicorns TM (or was that Sparkling Orcs TM?) books, why should Charlie decline it?

44:

Great explanation of goods. I'm less sure about the discussion of how creative content will evolve.

Discovery is a problem for starters - your examples are the same as everyone uses when talking about this issue. Everyone cites Cory and, when talking about music we hear about Amanda Palmer and increasingly about Zoe Keating. They're all wonderful, but the lack of diversity in these examples makes me wonder - if this really is such an attractive mode, why don't we see other prominent artists doing this? Why don't, say, Charlie Stross and John Scalzi and others with large blog followings do what Cory does with books? Sure we see people who have little to lose because they're not selling much in the first place do this but they're fighting obscurity. I'm not aware of authors who have substantial sales already who are doing what Cory does though and singular examples like Cory make we wonder if he's a leading indicator or merely an exceptional outlier.


On the idea that we'll move from blockbusters because people will mostly get content via filesharing... I think that's a perspective issue - many mainstream people still don't use any kind of torrent or filesharing software. This might be a generational issue of course, but even stipulating that people to move to getting content via filesharing you have other issues.

Also, the appetite for blockbusters isn't simply about seeing a work, it's also about shared experiences. You can find active discussions of Lost or Doctor Who or other shows online because substantial numbers of other people watch them. That shared experience is part of the attraction for fans - it's the ability to say "did you see last night's episode? Can you believe that..." That CAN happen with online only shows (the show The Guild gets a lot of attention because it taps into the MMO gaming crowd which is large enough that a percentage of them add up to real numbers) but I wonder if there too we'll see a handful of examples and a sharp drop off past those.

I guess I'm not sure that what people want in entertainment is really THAT diverse or that our need to read about/listen to/watch fringe things is exclusive of a desire to also indulge in the occasional spectacle at the movies or beach read. If we *did* start to see the audience for blockbuster entertainment disappear I wonder if production values would go down or if certain kinds of productions would disappear. A Star Trek, Avatar, Lord of the Rings can't work if only a few hundred thousand people will ever see it and even if technology reduces some costs paying hundreds of people to make a large film isn't cheap.

45:

Hiya,

You might want to a look at the "flash games" market over the last 10 years.

It's been an interesting push and pull with some good winners (newgrounds) and some rather bad winners (spill group/big fish) When I say good and bad I mean from the side of the creative.

I suspect this is the future of most media, much of the power ends up in the form of agregators (content discovery is expensive) and rather than gaining independent audiences the smaller artists sell content or even just give it to such agregators.

Perhaps its worse with games, the consumer love has always been focused on large corporations rather than individuals but I suspect not.

The problem becomes that you can not create enough content yourself to stand alone. So you group up in some way. As soon as you group up the power instantly shifts to whom ever controls the group.

With writing you can trace a similar blogging pattern to "blog cartels" and AOLs deep vertical blog sites. Bloggers maintain a site themselves with no readers or sell a post to a bigger site. In theory they get some love back to themselves but that only happens to a lucky few. Mostly they just bolster the bigger site.

I hope that the social web becomes an actual social web at some point but for now its just a marketing term and the only success is still at scales most people can not hope to achieve. Success or breaking even at the bottom is what needs to be achieved and actually, for games at least, I think it has gotten worse. Many shareware authors existed with small audiences and no big ties during the 90s if feels that these have been obliterated by the likes of say big fish in the 2000s.

Consider these some possible warnings of your future :)

46:

Great article - simple, brass-tacks. If a good is not rival and not excludable, then it must be public. No matter one's ideals, the real world we live in says (entertainment) content is either public or getting rapidly close to being so. No point in arguing about it - much better to figure out what to do about it if anyone is going to continue making a living as a content creator.

I'm trying to get into TV, and I keep asking how this area is going to shape up. So far, for film and TV, I've only seen short-term answers: Hulu (which is US-only), or making special-effects heavy productions (like 3D - which will only work until we all own 3D screens at home). Nonetheless the best market for TV right now is cable, where subscribers pay for content and maybe some freeriders buy DVDs of their favorite shows thereafter. I don't see this model lasting; audiences become more specific, but TV shows and films need big audiences to support their crews. It's a conundrum that's hard to decipher. Smaller crews will help some, but really there is a reason for a minimal crew size in a film or TV production. It's a tough nut to crack, and right now is a particularly harsh period of transition for these industries because of that. I think pretty much everyone in these industries are open to suggestions - I know I am.

47:
*Rolls eyes*

Because the biggest enemy of all artists -- except the ones at the very top: I'm talking Madonna or U2 or Stephen King here -- is obscurity.

Please note my previous comment

"Far too many creative people online fall over themselves to put their content up on portals because that's where the audience is without realizing they bring the audience with them and they are contributing to a process that eclipses their role in the creation of the content."

I know you have to go where the audience is, but far too many creatives have no strategy beyond "everyone else is doing it" and I have to get on the top 10 of newgrounds/deviantart/portalofchoice

I mean in your case, you have this site - it has a healthy traffic base favourably comparable to that of large organizations. You wouldn't be better off if all your online efforts had been wrapped through Tor.com or Wired or wherever.

And this is for the portals that are ostensibly on the legal side, that only publish content from the creators, what happens to the small fish when he's faced with the choice of asking the torrents to please stop distributing his work so he may sell some of his limited print run or face the wrath of the file sharers and their threats of boycott - I've seen this happen with some small press zines and it wasn't pretty

48:

As far as "what's wrong with government funding?", I think the answers will mostly boil down to two categories:

1) It's not as "fair" as a market would be, because there isn't a built-in mechanism for more popular art to earn more, for someone who doesn't consume any art not to have their resources taken to fund it, et cetera.

2) It's not as useful as a market would be for *steering* art, for nudging artists towards the kind of content that people want to consume.

A specific example people sometimes use to express both of these sentiments is the famous photograph "Piss Christ" (google it if you have to). Reactions range from "I don't want *my* taxes paying for that" (point one above) to "I don't want my taxes paying for *that*" (point two above).

I understand these arguments, even if I don't necessarily agree with them. Our markets are being manipulated *already*, by the concentration of the power of distribution at various points, such as large record companies, cable network operators, and so on. In other words, I'd assert that point (2) is certainly broken already today, and point (1) is arguably broken. (Can I buy a cheaper edition of the DVD that doesn't have the commentary track? Why not, if I want it and the filmmaker wants to provide it? Oh, because the huge company they distribute through won't *let* us have that transaction, so they can justify cartel-like price manipulations?)

49:

It occurs to me that some of these new business models are very like a very *old* business model: busking. Street performers perform 'for free', and rely on donations for income.

A major factor in a busker's income is how much traffic passes by their location. The internet allows their 'virtual street corner' to have *vastly* more traffic -- but they now compete for attention with the entire internet as well.

50:

So, perhaps novel publishers should remake themselves as content aggregators?

Wait a minute, isn't that what publishing houses and TV networks have done for decades.

I'm actually not challenging your diagnosis, just pointing out that it's not as new as we might wish, and they're still in trouble. All we need is for Newgrounds to be bought up by Newscorp, and it will be same old, same old, part 3 billion and six.

We still haven't resolved the major issue, namely, giving the creative people we like the resources to create the things we like.

51:

This explanation is very similar to Published Digital Information is a Public Good, which advocates government funding. Government funding seems like a pretty reasonable solution to me--you could have a government content hosting site which approved everything, tracked downloads, and paid according to download counts. If they allowed hotlinking, download counts would be pretty accurate, since it would be the easiest source. (International cooperation could be an issue.)

52:

Thank you very much for this most informative and clear explanation. It really helped me to give a bit of structure to my thoughts about these issues.
I am not a regular visitor (I arrived here following a link from Futurismic): but if the level of the posts is this high, I will soon add the site to my shortlist of "evening readings" :-)

53:

#36 I'd also say - for much the same reason that I wager a good number of the people here get way less than 50% of what they earn for their companies - yet don't quit and go independent.

Equally, in almost every job the salesmen earn more than the people who make stuff - and that's true from software to shoes.

That seems unfair, to those of us whose aptitude is for making things.

54:

There's nothing wrong with government funding for the arts in a moral sense, particularly for public goods which can't easily be funded in other ways. The main objections to government funding are practical rather than ideological:

1. It's almost impossible to keep political considerations out of it, which means there will always be a three-way conflict between what the people need to have funded, what the people will benefit from having funded and what the government will benefit from funding (and, yes, the first two of those are often very different).

2. State funding is, by its very nature, an inefficient method of channelling money from the original financier (the taxpayer) to the ultimate recipient. So state funding needs to be a last resort, for things that really can't be funded any other way.

3. The state only has a limited amount of money available to it, and there are other things which have a stronger claim on it.

55:

Thoughts . . .

"Content creators have direct access to content consumers" - I think that it's actually the other way round, and that's an important distinction. There are something like 1.8 billion internet users, yet it's incredibly hard for you to even reach 0.0001% of them. It's still very hard for an unknown author or band to even get people to check their web page, because we react badly to being spammed.

Variable pricing is a good idea, but I think you need to distinguish it from 'pay what you like'. If you try and sell me something for £10, then try me again at £7, then again at £5 - and I buy - you've found my point on the price/demand elasticity curve. If you say 'pay what you like' - as Radiohead found, most of their fans don't even value their music that much.

Then there is the cost of manufacturing demand - reaching 100,000 potential customers costs an awful lot more than word of mouth recommendations. Well, anything is more than zero.

So, to a degree, you may be better off focusing your efforts on a smaller number of people who will pay £5 (giving you, say, a £4 margin) than making a far bigger effort to get in all the £1 customers . . . who make you nothing.

(Presuming, for a second, the idea of a £1 marketing cost per customer - i.e. even goods with zero cost of reproduction do tend to have some kind of per unit cost).

I'm also pessimistic about the idea that we'll see a move away from the blockbusters and big bands. Look at live music, and the big money has always been with the stadium acts - again, these are the people who could give their music away. Or, in the case of the Rolling Stones later albums, can't give their music away.

It's been 35 years since the Spiral Scratch EP, 20 since the first Number 1 record on an independent label, and over a decade since Amazon created a flat virtual marketplace, where the smallest artist owned indie had equal shelf-space with the biggest major. Before all that was the 60s underground. The web's been letting bands directly connect to their audience for a decade too.

Yet none of these things has ever resulted in much of a change in the artist/consumer relationship - so I'm left wondering, what's different now?

Consider the 'new business models' - merchandising, direct relationship with fans, luxury limited editions - again, these are all things that big acts have been doing for decades (Official Fan Clubs, different versions of the single with different B-Sides and posters, Deadhead sticker for your Cadillac, etc). The Star Wars sequels and most Pixar films could probably be funded entirely from merchandising sales alone. More recently, various pop stars with their clothing and perfume ranges.

This kind of rubbish is exactly what Big Business is really really good at.

On the other hand, artists and small labels typically don't have a clue about how to really sell things (as in, not just to reach the interested audience, but reach the people who didn't know they needed it).

Another question is - do consumers want to relate directly with artists?? It requires some level of action or effort on the consumers part, when I think the overall trend has been the other way - I have a more casual relationship with hundreds of artists - or should I say with thousands of tracks - in my MP3 library. I don't even know much about a lot of them - they're things that came up on e-music recommendations, and I downloaded some of the tracks I liked. I don't have the time I did, when younger, to get really involved in knowing about the artists - and ironically, one reason for that, is that there is always something else, something new, to listen to.

Well that's the pessimistic side - on the optimistic side, I think it is a great time for small press books and niche indies (Great Pop Supplement, Heron, Singing Knives, Bo'Weavil, etc) because the 'web does make it so easy to connect with their niche audiences.

There's also a lot of stuff that I just think would not exist if it wasn't so easy to access the past - The Family Elan, for instance, are in their 20s, yet mixing Incredible String Band influences with Azerbaijani, Kurdish and Greek music . . . stuff that was almost completely inaccessible when I was the same age - yet it is all up on YouTube. Ditto the most obscure early 60's soul - the kind of stuff you needed to be deeply involved in the soul club scene to even know exists - all up there.

But I'm not sure it's creating new audiences - I don't get the feeling the audience for this stuff is any bigger than it was in the days of John Peel (just far better informed and musically weirder).

My guess is that what we'll actually see is similar to other markets - like clothing and food. The real money, and audience, is going to be in junk - the McDonalds, Top Shop, Primark, etc. Lady Gaga. Heavy marketing - the seller makes all the effort. The profits will be a fraction of their 80s heights, but still with lots and lots of zeros. The other end takes care of itself (the customers make most of the effort).

The interesting question is what happens in the middle - the people at work who will go and see the White Stripes, but couldn't name another garage band, don't read Pitchfork let alone anything more obscure - i.e. can someone create a way to reach these people with things they may actually like, because they're not about to change their habits and come looking.

(Or are we, being web-centric people who read blogs, exaggerating the importance the web may ever have. My fiance, for instance, largely discovers things through BBC 6 - although last.fm artist stations are a close second - but then, if she wasn't living with a geek, would she have known about them?)

56:

GubmintGood @5:

I am Norwegian and although I am not an author, I do read a lot of books, and I have been trying to figure out what my countryman may have meant. We do have culture grants and stipends, but other countries have those as well. It could be that he talked about the government funded purchase scheme for libraries, which means that if a book is accepted, the cost of a printing run of a certain size has been covered (the books are then distributed to libraries--please note that libraries are, of course, allowed to buy books for themselves as well, on their own budgets...).

There has been talk about how this safety net might encourage publishing houses to be less strict than they othewise would have been, not just in respect to marketability, but also quality-wise. (We also get a heated debate in the culture pages whenever a well-known author's latest novel is turned down by the board.) This means that we sometimes get a lot of first (and only) novels, not to mention poetry collections. On the other hand, we are still to a not unimportant extenct a nation of book-buyers and readers.

As to the government encouraging "decency", I can't really see that. To me, it seems that a lot of the Norwegian arts scene is what might be called "safely provocative" or "establishment leftist" (I am not sure if I get the point accross--please note, by the way, that this is neither culture buff nor leftie bashing, as mentioned, I am an eager consumer of culture, so to speak, and I am also a member of our Labour party). I have some difficulties seeing that controversy as such is avoided because of this subsidy. It could, however, be that the positive tendency in Scandinavia to encourage equality sometimes also has a negative aspect of encouraging mediocrity, or at least complacency. I have quite often heard that claim by Scandinavians and non-Scandinavians alike.

For a humorous take on recent Norwegian mainstream (I regret to say that I do not have an equivalent article about Norwegian SF&F on offer) literature, I would like to recommend the English-language article called Into the woods by a critic called Silje Bekeng.

57:

Canada has a 'public levy' on every blank CD sold (29 cents per CD), revenue to be distributed to the music industry. This is one (not so good) way of treating music as a public good... newer proposals want to extend this to mp3 players (tax them iPods!). The CD tax penalizes all other applications of blank CDs (e.g., backup of data). No one is happy with this levy - users pay much more for blank CDs, the CRIA (Canadian Recording Industry Assn) believes that it essentially sanctions online theft.
Still... any 'government funded' approach to content has to collect the tax from somewhere, either as general revenues or as a more 'targeted' tax such as this levy.

58:

one great model for how public funding can create truly magnificent content is in fact the BBC, and I say this as a person who doesn't live in the UK.

But two of the most widely pirated TV-shows worldwide are by the BBC (Dr. Who and Top Gear) and at least one of them (Top Gear) shows two further prototypical features:
a) it would not be possible in a market-driven environment (market-funded TV is not paid for by the viewer, who isn't actually the consumer but the product, but rather by the advertising ppl who are the actual consumers of the product "viewers eyeballs". thse advertising people don't want their own products to be negatively reviewed on TV so that doesn't happen on private TV. On Top Gear it happens all the time)
b) it is not actually (at all) friendly to the current government (one of the objections mentioned above to public funding "but then it will be whatever the king happens to like"). i mean Jeremy Clarkson idolizes Margaret Thatcher, for fucks sake.

one problem with it is though that production for a show that a worldwide enthusiast audience loves and devours is paid for by a british license-payers community who not necessarily all of them like it. As is evidenced by all the protests in the more serious newspapers (or is it just the Guardian?). As a non-UK-ian I can only say: please, PLEASE, Brits, continue paying for Top Gear. Because, as was found out quite some time ago, the rest of us are not allowed to pay for it, even if we want to.

59:

Sabik: I reject RMS out of hand. He's a left anarchist with a political agenda and a bushel of axes to grind; you'll find him a very dangerous guide to what we're discussing unless you're aware of his overall philosophy and what he's trying to achieve -- and why.

After some consideration (about twenty years) I have also come to reject the "arts are like software" analogy. They have very different cultural roots; in particular, software is almost always delivered to people in pre-packaged forms, like studio-recorded music, unless the "consumer" in question is a programmer; it's as if it took a university degree before you could produce music, and uninitiates can only consume.

The threshold of competence for entry to the arts is much lower than for software -- you don't have to bluff your way past a compiler, for starters. But this has undesirable side-effects. If you've ever seen a publisher's slushpile you'd begin to have some idea of the magnitude of the problem; fan-fic websites are another hint (a mere hint!) of how bad things can get if there's no distribution channel to keep the hordes of schizophrenics with hypergraphia out of the public perception. I'm not advocating censorship or cultural elitism here; merely observing that one of the services publishers provide is extremely valuable and utterly invisible insofar as we don't generally get to see the crap that doesn't make it past their firewalls.

60:

All this makes much sense to me, but as a writer, I have one caveat. Music, or at least musicians have been dealing with music downloads exceptionally well - in addition to many pure private good revenues like various sorts of band merchandise, many musicians have always made much of their money off of live performances. What remains to be seen is how all this works for writers. The mention of government funding for artists is IMHO the most ideal solution - perhaps based in part on how many people have downloaded that artist's work. However, the odds of this happening in the US is sadly vanishingly small, and how well other alternatives will work and even what they may be, is less obvious. Initial data on what works is promising, but some current solutions, like Cory Doctorow's selling more due to releasing content for free starts working less well once more people have well-made ebook readers, which given what I've been seeing about the iPad and the Alex e-reader, may be now. So, I am concerned for the near future. I expect solutions will be found in a decade, but until then making a living as a writer may be more difficult.

61:

Rick, my take is that Cory is an outlier. He's a very successful novelist, but he has another source of income in public speaking and consultancy. His first novel advance was tiny because he insisted on going the CC route -- he could afford to do so because he was EFF's outreach director at the time, but most authors couldn't do that. And he kept being able to publish CC works because he started out that way. I've followed a more traditional career path, and I can tell you that my publishers' bosses' bosses are really paranoid about giving stuff away.

(I was hoping to CC-release "The Family Trade" this year; alas, group-wide policy at Holtzbrinck, triggered by the Amazon bun-fight, has scuppered that idea.)

I'd like to note that this website is one of the ten most popular written SF websites out there, according to Technorati. Daily visitor counts around 9000-12,000; monthly unique visitors around 130,000. That's not quite big enough to make a self-publishing op viable (although I'm constantly reviewing it -- and consider the implications of me inviting guest writers on board, if you will).

62:

dfjdejulio: It's not as useful as a market would be for *steering* art, for nudging artists towards the kind of content that people want to consume.

In what way is censorship by market forces superior to censorship by government fiat?

(Market forces are actually rather crude when it comes to influencing the arts, because there's a delay in the feedback loop between what's currently successful and what commercial artists can produce. Hence next year's glut of sparkly unicorns vampires.)

63:

Regarding golf courses: They do have a maximum occupancy, and it's a fairly small number, being about one group per hole, otherwise drives from the group behind you can land among your group, and it's a bitch to tell identical white spheres apart. The number is, being generous, and also rounding up, 70.

70 people isn't a lot.

@6
>Those of us who do so are privileged by sharing a common language with the biggest, richest fiction market there is -- the USA. However, we, too have to meet (unwritten) standards: Americans have some weird political, cultural, and religious beliefs[*], and if you contradict them too openly you may suffer in the marketplace.

>(although the decency/worthiness standards, if strict, are a major problem for the arts: the arts don't flourish where transgression is heavily frowned upon).

Charles, it would be great if you could avoid contradicting yourself in the same breath.

As for these arguments against government funding, they would appear to be arguments against poorly implemented government funding, rather than the concept itself. This might be a no true Scotsman argument, but I'm standing by it.

@21
>Rolling hills of open uncultivated land, privately owned and restricted to only a few people playing an obstruse game.

Golf is a pretty "obstruse" game, but golf courses are by no means uncultivated. Putting greens do not arise naturally!

>The very concept of land ownership is quite as artificial as ownership of intellectual content, but it's older and more established.

Are you high?

64:

>In what way is censorship by market forces superior to censorship by government fiat?

Well, one big way is that you have to pay for government art regardless how uninteresting or objectionable you find it, or else you go to jail. At least right now I don't have to buy sparkly vampire stories if I don't want to.

Another way is that defying market censorship makes you poor and obscure, but defying government censorship sends you to jail.

The Department of Culture seems like a good idea until it falls into the hands of a political faction with tastes, values, and interests opposed to yours.

65:

Just remember Monty Python was government funded

66:
Golf is a pretty "obstruse" game, but golf courses are by no means uncultivated. Putting greens do not arise naturally!

I like that alternative spelling over abstruse, sue me.

I expected science fiction readers to be more flexible when it comes to putting themselves in the mind of a different culture. Yes, to a neolithic hunter gatherer a golf course is indistinguishable from open ground, albeit probably weird looking.

Cultivation is usually associated with crops, you see.

I mean have you really never come across stuff like this:

engaged in struggles over land and self-government with the states that encompass them. In Canada, aboriginal people have effectively used the concept of "aboriginal title" to force the government to negotiate land and self-government agreements with them. Such agreements, however, along with the notion of "aboriginal title" itself, are based on the European concept of "property"; they grant First Nations "ownership" of certain lands and spell out the rights they possess in relation to those lands. This means that aboriginal people have had to learn to think and speak in the "language of property" as a precondition for even engaging government officials in a dialogue over land and sovereignty.
http://www.jstor.org/pss/683774


Are you high?

Rude and ignorant. You're a winner, aren't you?

67:

That's my thought on Cory too - and it's one reason I almost reflexively push back whenever someone uses him as an example of the future of fiction publishing. Any viable model that emerges will spawn a bunch of people who all use it or variations on it - we won't want for examples.


People continually want to get rid of the middleman without realizing the impact of forcing one end or the other (or both) to take on the tasks that middlemen do. You've covered this elsewhere regarding publishing, but it's true in most endeavors that the layers between the producer and the buyer often reduce friction by consolidating tasks that have to be done and doing them at scale.

I remember a NY Times article on Jonathan Coulton a year or two ago and he was already swamped with everything that needed to be done to manage his community and keep them engaged. And his community was only about 50,000 people. I look at someone like Wil Wheaton whose site traffic is in the same rough class as yours and Scalzi's and who has well north of a million Twitter followers... he seems to be doing decently self-publishing, but he also acts... and he's not getting rich. And how many artists really are going to have 30-100,000 unique visitors a month? Not many.

68:

Not sure that I agree with Elmyra's conclusions; not even sure that I like them. But, she may be right about where we are going. One thing for sure, the old models are broken; and, like Humpty-Dumpty, they cannot be fixed.
We live in interesting times.

69:

@67
Woops! Sorry. That should have been "Mili's conclusions" in my previous post.
Must. Always. Proof. Read. Before. Posting.

70:

If you want to see the future of content distribution, I suggest looking at webcomics. I personally, as a random reader with no personal connection to the author, am helping to fund the first print run of a webcomic I like. There's even still clearly a place for traditional publishers in the new world order -- consider MegaTokyo, which moved up the ranks, starting first with a tiny now-defunct indie publisher, Studio Ironcat, and moving to Dark Horse, before ending up at (the!) DC Comics, while continuing to release for free online. (To everyone who thinks the move to ebooks will kill the traditional publishers, uhh... well, we still have webcomics, in print and electronic forms. I don't see that changing any time soon.) See also FreakAngels, Girl Genius, etc. etc. ad infinitum.

71:

I see exactly what Kevin Riggle means here; I only know about 2 other people who read Girl Genius, but all 3 of us check the website 3 times a week pretty much without fail, and have all 8 volumes in print form as well.

72:

@heteromeles: Lots of interesting thoughts there. The topic of science funding is very dear to my heart as my partner is a nuclear physicist (nuclear physics funding in the UK at the moment is less than Winter Olympics funding, which in turn is only 2% of Summer Olympics funding). It's an interesting parallel.

73:

@dfjdejulio: Both good points - the market does have a way to translate information about people's preferences into financial incentives. However, the one thing I have an issue with is your use of the word "fair" in relation to markets.

Markets are efficient - i.e. they create outcomes where it's impossible to make one more person better off without making someone else worse off. (And that's for perfectly functioning theoretical markets, without all the fun failure modes like externalities, information assymetry, moral hazard and public goods - in practice, most markets aren't even efficient.)

I was going to say that markets most certainly weren't fair but then I thought better of it. More than that, fair is not a word that you can meaningfully apply to the market because it has a lot underlying assumptions about values to it. What you think is fair based on your values is not necessarily what I think is fair based on mine. The only value markets operate to is efficiency as defined above.

*gets off economist soap box*

74:

I'm very much of the belief that the "distributed patronage" model is likely to be the way readers (listeners etc.) keep our favourite authors (musicians etc.) fed, clothed and motivated to produce more for us.

I think reducing the free-rider effect is only going to be possible by cultural means - shaming those who flaunt their freeloading and providing clear recognition (e.g. book dedications, tuckerization etc.) for those that donate a lot. Right now there is little or no disapproval amongst ones peers for people who bootleg books music and so on, indeed they frequently get praise because idiot DRM schemes and deliberate pricing/release date strategies mean that those of us who want to buy ebooks frequently either can't or if we can are forced to pay more for the ebook than a dead tree edition that turns out not to be viewable on our reading device of choice.

One thing that I do think would strongly help the creators is a bit of openness about their finances (or lack of). If creators had pages where they could show that they had received $X for their work over the last year (of which $Y went as taxes) and they needed to spend $Z for house, food, clothes, trips to Japan etc. then it might help. And of course at the end of evry book/video a link to that page with the "if you enjoyed this then please pay me because I'll have to stop otherwise".

I note that some journalists (e.g. Michael Yon) are funding themselves via the donation model and seem to be doing pretty well.

PS I definitely like the flatr idea.

75:

@Braden: Thanks for pointing me at that, I hadn't seen it before.

76:

"In what way is censorship by market forces superior to censorship by government fiat?"

With market forces, publishers try to second guess what the consumer wants, and are punished if they get it wrong.

With government fiat, government acts like publishers, but with...
x Less diversity of opinion.
x Less motivation to get it right.
x A constant temptation to give the consumers what they *should* want.
x A single point of failure which can be influenced by loud pressure groups and conservative non-consumers. (The equivalent of the ID card - not evil in itself, but an oppression waiting to happen.)

The Public Lending Rights thing falls down because librarians are constrained by community expectations and "standards of decency", and unseen pressures from above.

Did/would "Lady Chatterly's Lover" earn DH Lawrence PLR money?

77:

You're kidding. You're seriously contending Stalin had a positive influence on the arts? That the music you referred to was improved by his presence and policies? You're kidding, right?

78:

bbot: Charles, it would be great if you could avoid contradicting yourself in the same breath.

I'm not contradicting myself. You're having a reading comprehension fail.

(Here's a hint: it's possible to comply with censorship while disapproving of it, whether it's censorship by market forces providing feedback from a politically doctrinaire audience, or censorship by bureaucrat.)

79:

I agree that government subsidy is really the best long-run solution, even if the political climate makes it unthinkable today. The subsidy doesn’t have to be done through a censorious bureaucracy. You could have a periodic census, asking everyone what online books/music/movies they had recently consumed, and then allocate subsidies to the creators in proportion to how popular they were in the census. Or you could give everyone vouchers and let each citizen decide how to allocate the money among various publishers. (The US has a population of about 300 million and, before the current stimuli, a budget of around US$3 trillion, so a voucher of just $100 per resident would only take up one percent of the budget.)

80:

"One thing that I do think would strongly help the creators is a bit of openness about their finances (or lack of). If creators had pages where they could show that they had received $X for their work over the last year (of which $Y went as taxes) and they needed to spend $Z for house, food, clothes, trips to Japan etc. then it might help. "

And why does a creative person owe us that? What do YOU care whether they make $50,000 or $500,000? Oh, believe me, I get it - if they made more than what you think is enough, you'll just take their stuff for free and not contribute because they 'don't need the money' right? The problem with that is that it gets you value for nothing. one thing the market does a decent job at is to match value and compensation. If I see a Stross book and it's $25 I usually don't buy it because I know it will come out in paperback for $9. I don't value the hardback format enough and, while I'd like to read the book now, access to it NOW versus later isn't worth the $16 to me usually, so I wait. But what I can't do legally is get the value of his novel without compensating him for it. Your model would let people do that - you could take a work and not pay for it (unless I'm misunderstanding you, in which case, my apologies).

That's the issue with patronage models for me - people will naturally slow support when the artist is making above the average wage but they'll still want access to his or her work. If they were willing to forego access it would be symmetrical, but in today's 'content should be free, here let me download it' environment I fear we have real economic issues as Mili points out combined with a sense of entitled access and those don't combine well.

81:

@79 "The subsidy doesn’t have to be done through a censorious bureaucracy."

Yes but, it would still create a tempting choke point.

The money allocated to a voucher system, could become be a political football whenever people wanted to visibly play at austerity. Inclusion in the voucher system would be politicised, e.g. think back to Satanic Verses. And, there'd always be the temptation to weight the system in favour of worthy or "challenging" work.

If you hand control to politicians, then that control becomes politicised.

For example, note how the government taxes artistic earnings, then hands it back through grants. If they were serious about supporting the arts, why not exempt artistic earnings up to £20K from tax?

82:


First- Milena, great essay. Thanks for hosting her here, Charlie.

About public funding for the arts vs. market based funding... why is this being treated as an either or scenario? The system we have here in the US is imperfect in so many ways, but I do think that there is also a history of both sources of funding helping one another. While I'd argue that we spend a shamefully small amount of public funding on the arts compared to what we spend blowing people up, I'd also suggest that the funds we do use on the arts are well spent.

If there were a single implementation of how money made it from the government to an artist, I agree that it would be stifling and we'd end up with a lot of crap art, but public funding for the arts doesn't work that way. Artist in residence programs or grants for materials or whatever direct assistance to the artist can allow an artist to focus on their work instead of market pressures for a moment, but as a general rule this money doesn't keep flowing for a single individual forever, so for most this has to be a stepping stone to something else. This can be crucial though to later making it in the market place or finding some other kind of patronage.

Another way public funds can affect the market for art is as an aggregator. As Charlie points out, obscurity is an enemy of an artist trying to make their way in the market place. Our publicly funded National Public Radio serves as a mediator between many varied artists and the public. They feature new and old artists and can drive significant market interest towards the performers they feature, many of whom aren't getting significant airplay elsewhere. Or towards the books they discuss. This is government funding going towards the arts, but this also stimulates private funding of the arts. An either-or model for this sucks. We don't want just the market mediating our artistic ecosystem; neither do we want the government completely running it.

Government funding for the arts creates more interest in the arts and therefore more potential buyers for the artists' creations. Back to the subject of Ms. Popova's article, even though we (most of us) pay heavily into public funds, we largely experience things provided by the government as free. I feel like I am getting the songs I'm listening to on NPR right now as if I've downloaded them for free even though my tax dollars are paying into coffers that are paying for them. The same with books gotten from a library. I'm more likely to try new things if I feel no cost to try them out.

Listening to music or reading a book or watching TV are habits that have to be cultivated. Having free access to music makes it become more important to me and increases my perceived value of the product, so even if this means that I consume quite a bit of it for free -be it radio or downloads- it increases what I'm willing to pay for access to it. I download more free now than ever, but also spend more on music, both recorded and live, than ever before.

The same with books. Or movies.

One thing that free access to content does is it allows people who economically can't afford the typical (and usually more pleasing) avenues for experiencing to keep the habit of consuming it alive. I'll give the example of cable TV. I can't afford cable right now, but being able to watch the Daily Show or Project Runway easily online keeps me well aware of the fact that I like what cable TV offers. If I could afford it, I would pay for it. As it is, I can access it at a price I can afford and the shows can still sell my greedy consumer eyeballs to their advertisers, albeit their online advertisers. I like flipping through the channels on cable and hate downloading shows online.

This gets at a point that is sometimes lost in the bluster: it isn't only content that can be bought or sold, but also how it is experienced. This is why Avatar is in no danger from bootleggers; there is a compelling reason to pay to see it in the theaters because seeing it on the small screen is not a remotely similar experience. Even if the content is a public good, the experience of watching it in a theater is not.

83:

Speaking of openness in income reporting most webcomics use outsider advertising company Project Wonderful, created by the webcomics artist who does Dinosaur Comics.

It's an infinite auction model but what bugs me about it is how open and unsecured all the information is, not just to advertisers but anyone can click on an ad and see not only the running bid values but also detailed traffic stats on the advertising website.

I believe that's probably something you should keep close to your shirt so as not to prejudice other advertising opportunities, but the webcomics crowd seem to like it that way.

Another thing I'm leery about is that most of the advertisers are other publishers, making the whole thing a kind of popularity pyramid scheme, smaller webcomics advertising on larger webcomics for a shot at a piece of their readership pie, which is all very well but I'm old fashioned enough to think that maybe some of the money should be coming from the reader's side of the equation

84:

A couple of points: consider the UK Arts Council's funding of the theatre. Compare a typical West End (i.e. profit sector) week and a typical one in the National Theatre/Old/Young Vic/RSC etc (i.e. public-funded). Which is more experimental, radical, etc and less commercial and mediocre?

Of course, this judgment is heavily dependent on what you consider experimental, radical, or mediocre, and on which particular week you pick. But I would be confident in saying that the stereotype of a week in the West End would be "a lotta lotta Andrew Lloyd Webber and some classics" and at the NT would be "skinny Brechtians driving Land Rovers around on the stage and swearing, and some Sir or other for cover".

When this point is made, opponents of public financing tend to immediately declare that the skinny Brechtians are unrepresentative and this is an example of cultural-marxist elites, etc, etc. Arguments that require you to simultaneously believe opposites are rarely valid. Both the argument and the phenomenon are typical in western Europe generally.

I think someone's missed the point in referring to "customers putting their hands in their pockets". As Charlie has repeatedly pointed out, publishing is much more complicated than that. Nobody suggests that writers would draw their income from the UK Literature Council; similarly, they don't draw it from publishers now, they draw it from readers. They get an advance from the publisher - i.e. a loan.

A major role of publishers and record labels is acting as a financial institution - they lend money to prospects, and also provide various services in kind, and then they make the money back out of royalties. A lot of books fail, as a lot of businesses do, so there's a need for a risk-sharing institution like a bank or a VC firm. Or, for that matter, a UK Literary Council paralleling the Arts Council.

Notably, given the high failure rate, the effective rate of interest on private finance of this kind has to be high in order to satisfy their bankers and shareholders that the risk is worth it. The cost of capital for the public sector is lower.

85:

If you've ever seen a publisher's slushpile you'd begin to have some idea of the magnitude of the problem; fan-fic websites are another hint (a mere hint!) of how bad things can get if there's no distribution channel to keep the hordes of schizophrenics with hypergraphia out of the public perception. I'm not advocating censorship or cultural elitism here; merely observing that one of the services publishers provide is extremely valuable and utterly invisible insofar as we don't generally get to see the crap that doesn't make it past their firewalls.

I've heard this kind of thing before and it kind of annoys me. Hyperbolic stuff about "IT SEARED MY EYEBALLS TO CARAMELIZED GOO" or "MY BRAIN IS MELTED" aside, what's so awful about letting "the public" see horrible fanfiction? There's a whiff of something paternalistic here, about needing to keep the plebs blissfully ignorant of how bad bad writing can be, keep the curtain intact, etc.

I mean, okay. So when you look at a fanfic website, lots of it sucks. So what? You can just not read it. You haven't actually been harmed, your brain hasn't actually been melted.

The only real harm is that there might be something really good in that fanfic website that you ended up not reading because the site wasn't filtered very well. And... okay. So? What's so dire about that?

Yes, acquisitions editors perform a service by combing through slush piles. It's part of what someone pays for when they go to a bookstore -- that they'll find something to read that was worth paying money for. When someone doesn't feel like paying that money because they are in fact willing to take some chances, then they *don't* go to the bookstore and they *do* go read some online fiction site. This is a free-willed choice that people have the right to make.

Moreover, the traditional publishing industry does not provide a universal one-size-fits-all sorting mechanism (or, rather, the various imprints a publisher carries do not cover the whole universe of possible sorting mechanisms) that everyone wants. Some people may be willing to pay less for less sorting. Some people want writing sorted in a way that there isn't enough of a market to support in the traditional industry (weird sexual kinks, weird political affiliations, interests that are just plain weird). Etc.

How can the opening up of the landscape to different filtering mechanisms -- different reviewing sites, different forms of e-publishing, different content aggregators -- not be an overall good thing here? At what point does this become a kind of unpleasant, presumptuous shouting "Those people are liking things that they SHOULDN'T LIKE!" -- not shouting because fanfiction.net is UNsuccessful at giving people what they want but the opposite, that a lot of people really do seem willing to tolerate it and do gain value from the more limited filtration mechanisms (recs, reviews, etc.) it provides?

If you really worry that much about reading horrible, horrible writing on the Internet, the answer is the simplest answer in the world: Don't read it. No one's making you read it.

If you have the *secondary* worry -- which is a separate worry -- that if you just don't read it you'll miss the gems in the muck, then the answer to that is also the simplest answer in the world: Pay someone to read it for you and forward you the good ones. If they don't do a good enough job, pay them more or fire them and pay more money to someone better. Rinse and repeat.

That is arguably one role, sure, that publishing once served, but it is not a role that you must have a traditional dead-tree publishing industry to perform, and I honestly do feel my elitism sensors prickling when I hear the implied argument that every single barrier to entry that every single thing about the publishing industry provides is absolutely necessary or else the slush pile would be such a stygian nightmare the task of filtering through it would be utterly impossible for any market-based resource to perform. (At the most extreme I've heard this as a defense for why SF magazines still require hardcopy submissions -- because if they allowed e-mailed submissions they would be DROWNED IN ILLITERATE BOZOS or whatnot. It is something I don't have much sympathy for.)

86:

When this point is made, opponents of public financing tend to immediately declare that the skinny Brechtians are unrepresentative and this is an example of cultural-marxist elites, etc, etc. Arguments that require you to simultaneously believe opposites are rarely valid.

It's not about "opposites". The question is not "old cultural elites vs. wild young experimentalists", as though that were some kind of binary axis on which to judge art.

The question is whether government funding for the arts will require someone in the government to make some kind of judgment call based ultimately on their own personal beliefs or preferences, and whether government bureaucrats who fund the arts are likely to have any systematic biases in their personal beliefs or preferences that cause them to differ from the overall beliefs and preferences of the taxpayers (the ones *actually* funding the arts), and whether you have a problem with this.

The first two propositions are, to my mind, pretty obviously true. Anyone who seriously denies them -- who thinks that it's possible to create an Arts Council that is an objective arbiter of the true, cosmic, mathematically verified Value of Art, or that the fact that the Arts Council is somewhere along the line appointed by a democratically elected government makes it "democratic" -- is not worth engaging further.

The last proposition is the problematic one, and I'm American enough to at least acknowledge it's a problem even if as a left-wing American I don't instantly rule on the side of "Bureaucratic government meddling! Evil!" The Arts Council has some kind of standard it applies to art, and it's not really an objective standard. The part of the standard that would approve the experimental Brechtian piece probably wouldn't approve my own piece involving me telling racist jokes about Michael Jackson's death to the audience for two hours, and that's probably a standard that many people would agree with -- but it's no objective standard.

And then more to the point, they would probably be much more likely to approve a politically-motivated piece talking about the horrors of the Iraq War than they would a jingoistic piece talking about the glory of Western imperialism, and there are a lot of voters and taxpayers who would justifiably have a problem with that. (And I would agree with their objections, if not their political stance, because I *do* dislike the idea that "Well, hey, the left-wing people are in charge because we are correct so let's go use our power in all the ways we want to further the cause of righteousness". I am the kind of sad-sack American classical-liberal-type who thinks that having our bedrock values be those of an impartial and neutral system is important because above the bedrock levels political power flows back and forth way too freely and often. One can easily imagine a regime under which the tax dollars flow in the opposite direction, when it comes to commenting about foreign wars.)

87:

That's the issue with patronage models for me - people will naturally slow support when the artist is making above the average wage but they'll still want access to his or her work.

Lest anyone assume that I'm here to represent the US right wing, let me say this upfront: The socialist in me is very happy to give people the power to say "This guy has enough money already" and give him less money.

Ultimately, when you say that a democracy has the right to impose a progressive income tax on the rich in order to provide welfare services for the poor, you are saying that people have the right to make this kind of decision -- "This guy has too much money already" -- at least when they're acting in the aggregate, in the form of the state.

The whole hippie left-wing concept of "participatory economics" is about saying that people should have more of a right to do this as individuals as well as in the form of the state. Ideas about implementation vary, but as a concept, I have no problem with it. I don't think how much money people should have should be strictly determined by a blind, mechanical determination of how much monetary "value" they've given to society as capitalism determines it. I think there's nothing wrong at all with saying "Well, you're doing well enough" and paying less, which is the logical converse implied by saying people have the right to say "Gosh, you're having a hard time" and giving more.

Does this system stop working if everyone is a total douche who decides he will *never* let go of any value if he can help it at all and *everyone's* life is of minimal value next to his own? Sure. But newsflash: The rantings of hardcore libertarians aside, *every system breaks down* under such circumstances, no exceptions.

88:

And then more to the point, they would probably be much more likely to approve a politically-motivated piece talking about the horrors of the Iraq War than they would a jingoistic piece talking about the glory of Western imperialism, and there are a lot of voters and taxpayers who would justifiably have a problem with that.

Feature!

Further, my point is strengthened; the system supports the weird and unpopular. You want to do teabagger fan service? Go ahead; you can probably get it financed in the private sector. It's what The Real People want...right?

Or are you not so sure about that, all of a sudden?

89:

Feature!

Further, my point is strengthened; the system supports the weird and unpopular. You want to do teabagger fan service? Go ahead; you can probably get it financed in the private sector. It's what The Real People want...right?

Or are you not so sure about that, all of a sudden?

Are you still missing my point?

The system doesn't support "the weird and unpopular", as a general rule. The system supports *a specific set of stuff* that people who work for the system tend to be biased toward.

This is distinct from what The Real People want. It is also distinct from everything that is "weird and unpopular".

If you fervently believe that this set of biases is and always will be intrinsically positive -- that the system is biased toward Real Difficult Truths and is biased against Teabagger Bullshit and this will always be the case -- then this isn't an issue.

If you don't give a shit about fairness and think that more art getting made is always a good thing, then this probably also isn't an issue.

But otherwise, it is an issue -- and it's an issue even for me, a left-wing non-teabagger.

90:

Charlie, I presented the arguments as I understood them, I didn't state that they were *my* arguments!

But there is a way in which censorship by the market can be preferable to censorship by the government. In theory. Basically, I would argue that the more that people are forced to spend their resources on things they do not want and do not approve of, the worse the situation is morally.

Let's say there's a work of art that I have an extreme moral problem with. With a market, I can refrain from buying it, I can boycott the artist, I can boycott anyone *distributing* it, I can boycott the advertisers, I can take actions to reduce the amount of *my* resources going towards *that* art. If I am taxed and the government funds art, I have less freedom in that regard.

Then we hit the problem that, while in theory, theory and practice are identical, in practice they often differ. Consumers are manipulated. Markets are manipulated.

In the end, my preferred way of funding the arts comes down to patronage I guess. Government funding is one way of doing that, but there are others. If you want an interesting example of patronage and art today, look at how Felica Day's "web TV" series "The Guild" is being funded. It's really worth looking into.

The first season, they scrambled to put the money together themselves. And it was good. And then they were shopping it around, and all sorts of people made all sorts of offers. And then Microsoft made the *right* offer. They fund it, and in exchange, the content is exclusive to their distribution networks (XBox Live video, Zune video, that sort of thing) ... for a limited time. And then it can go up on YouTube, or be sold on DVD, or whatever. The creators keep IP ownership, have the right to make other deals, et cetera. Microsoft pays to get the series made, and what they get in exchange is *short-term* exclusivity, which they hope drives people toward their video services. (The series itself also happens to be good, by the way.)

I can *imagine* an author being commissioned by Amazon (or Apple) to write a novel that couldn't be sold as a paper novel for some reason or another. Maybe it is of a length that nobody will put on store shelves, maybe it uses some typesetting technique that is expensive to do on paper but cheap on a display, maybe it takes advantage of a nonlinear structure that would be difficult for a hardcopy reader to follow, whatever. And then, have a block of time where that content is *exclusively* available for *free*, but only on a Kindle (or via iBooks), and maybe even only on such a device with some kind of "premium content subscription" membership (analogous to "XBox Live Gold" or "Zune Pass"). The theory would be that enough stuff like this would drive Kindle (or iPad) sales, which generates revenue itself and also lays the groundwork for more future revenue. And after that exclusivity period ends, the author is free to open it up via a CC license.

(Heck, in my own case, almost 100% of the etexts I have paid money for have come from Baen, and the reason for that is very much the Baen Free Library. In the case of Baen, I *think* the authors were participating in the experimental aspect of it, giving up money for the first book of a series in the hopes of increasing the sales of the rest of the series. That worked on me, more than once. But there's no reason a publisher couldn't do the same thing, paying for a book and then giving it away, making the money after the relationship with the reader has been locked in.)

If we're lucky, all sorts of artists will try all sorts of crazy shit to try and figure out how to make money, and more than one answer will actually end up working.

91:

Daniel G: Who is this "our" you speak of?

Here's a hint: I'm not American. And any workable solution has to work for the 95% of the planetary population (and 75% of the planetary economy) that isn't American.

Here's another hint: from what I've learned of public arts funding, the US model is terrible. (Largely because the political interference other folks have been noting is something to which any government funded program in the USA is prone, for structural reasons to do with the way American politics works -- see also, "pork barrel".)

American exceptionalism is a real nuisance when trying to discuss a global problem locked in through treaty law. So kindly stop trying to divert the debate onto territory you, personally, feel comfortable with.

92:

Art: what's so awful about letting "the public" see horrible fanfiction?

It's like spam.

You use email. You look in your inbox daily, expecting some useful communication from someone you want to hear from, like your bank manager. Instead, you find sixty bazillion badly misspelled missives from banks you've never had an account with inviting you to log in, fourteen offers of medications to make portions of your anatomy bigger (often bits of anatomy you don't have), and three letters from Zimbabwean orphanages soliciting financial assistance in buying a farm. Where's the mail you're looking for? Lost in the spam.

As for your desire to see alternative rating systems, this blog entry from 2006 implicitly contains a refutation.

The system doesn't support "the weird and unpopular", as a general rule. The system supports *a specific set of stuff* that people who work for the system tend to be biased toward.

This isn't actually true. (Disclosure: a close family member of mine used to be an arts officer for a local government organization here in the UK, and I got to hear a lot about what they do and how they do it close-up.) If the system has a bias, it's mostly against funding stuff that can get commercial funding, on the grounds that it doesn't need supporting. Which leaves money for the weird and the esorteric and the experimental.

The American funding system strikes me as being corrupt insofar as it makes it far too easy -- and attractive -- for elected politicians to tamper with public funding for grandstanding purposes.

93:

dfjdejulio:But there is a way in which censorship by the market can be preferable to censorship by the government. In theory. Basically, I would argue that the more that people are forced to spend their resources on things they do not want and do not approve of, the worse the situation is morally.

You seem to be under the illusion that there's a free market in which I, as an arts producer, are selling to the public.

I'm not. I'm selling to one of six large multinational conglomerates who control 80% of the distribution channels of the publishing industry. (It's the same, or worse, in music, film, games, and TV.) I have to make it past their internal censors. I am free in principle to make an end-run around them ... if I'm willing to take a 50-70% cut in earnings (by going to the small indy publishers) or a 90-95% cut in earnings (by going direct to the public via the web).

While in practice, governments aren't easily prone to capture by the moral shibboleths of an individual member; they have to be shared by a substantial majority, up and down the line, and in these days of rapid many-to-many communication social consensus about the nature of "bad content" are largely breaking down, leaving only a few extremes outside the pale (e.g. child pornography). Censorship regimes across the developed world have mostly collapsed compared to their state 30 years ago. Nor do most countries have quite the same monolithic puritan voting bloc as the USA with it's fundamentalist christian problem.

Personally, if Google commissioned me to write a novel and give it away for free (and could pay for my time) I'd grab the offer and run. Alas, that's not their business: their business lies in turning me into more sausage-meat for the Palo Alto pork pie factory's stream of generic "content".

94:

As for your desire to see alternative rating systems, this blog entry from 2006 implicitly contains a refutation.

Well, sure, if you believe that the question "Do you like this book?" has an objectively correct answer and that people who answer incorrectly need an expert who knows better than them to force them to modify their behavior.

But using that post as an argument that there needs to be a highly complex edifice of publishers to filter the great sea of dross seems tendentious in the extreme. These are reader reviews specifically cherry-picked to be the most humorously perverse ones visible on Amazon, not randomly chosen representative reviews.

It's not like in 1984 actually has a 1/2-star rating on Amazon overall in reality. In reality most of the reader reviews on Amazon cluster around what they "should" be, because most reader reviews, uncultured swine as they may be, tend to be strongly influenced by the critical consensus of how "good" a book is "supposed" to be anyway.

I mean, what's your point? That we can't have decent literature unless we have a specifically appointed elite of Smart Folks who then appoint their own successors in a complex, culturally guarded system where proving your Smarts is necessary to be taken seriously, and the Unwashed Masses may not understand the stuff the Smart Folks say or agree with their opinions really but have generally been intimidated into agreeing that those folks are Smart so their suggestions should determine what's taught in schools and such?

Because, frankly, I don't think anything can actually change that. That is in fact the case even in the Wild West of self-published crap like webcomics and fanfic and whatnot. Everyone who dips their toe in the world of fanfic or webcomics who actually knows one of the Smart People of that world cannot avoid being angrily and forcefully told who is a "respectable" author and who is in the vast majority that is not. There will always be self-appointed cadres of critics who find joy and pleasure and maybe even an income from telling everyone else what they should and shouldn't like and being good enough at it to be listened to. I fail to see how non-traditional publishing is a threat to this at all.

Or are you actually saying that the *existence of the bad stuff in a form where the public can see it* is the problem? Are you saying that we shouldn't just have Smart critics and commentators and filters who make a living off of looking at the vast sea of dreck and telling us that it's dreck and recommending the gems, but that the dreck should *never be available for public view* in the first place? That the possibility that someone might *want* to read the slush pile must be firmly denied for the public's own good? That no one should be *allowed* to click on the "spam" folder on their inbox just in case the filtering bot made a mistake? That there's something dangerous and scary and bad about the fact that stuff that "shouldn't" get published still somehow has gotten published, that the Smart Respectable Critics can now only disrecommend or ignore it rather than forcibly prevent it from being read by real people?

Because I really have no sympathy for that point of view. It arouses an extremely violent antipathy in me, in fact.

95:

Disclosure: a close family member of mine used to be an arts officer for a local government organization here in the UK, and I got to hear a lot about what they do and how they do it close-up

I don't want to make any personal accusations toward any individuals, but I really dislike asking the question "So do you think Institution X is biased?" and hearing the answer "Of course not! And how do I know? Because I have a close personal connection with it!"

This is especially true when it comes to subjective questions of artistic merit, where bias is at its most unconscious and subtle. Nobody consciously decides to be biased against artistic work that they politically disagree with, but *tons* of people mysteriously seem to come to the conclusion that left-wingers just write more beautifully and convincingly than right-wingers (or vice versa), and that left-wing humor is just boring and unfunny because for some reason only right-wingers really know how to tell jokes (or vice versa), etc.

96:

I don't see funding something in exchange for short-term exclusivity to really be patronage, in the sense of dealing with how to fund content as a public good. Getting exclusive access, even in the short-term, is still based on making the content in question into a simulated private good (predicated, at least in part, on hoping that the term of exclusivity is short enough to make most potential breakers of exclusiveness just not bother). The Baen Free Library seems to have the same flaw -- giving away the old content to get buyers for the new content only works if the new content can itself be sold.

I see patronage as along the lines of funding a work because you want it to exist and can potentially have some influence on what form it exists in. Anyone can listen to the song, or read the book, but it says what the payer wants it to say: advertising, promoting one's views, or maybe just because the patrons want it to be that way for their own enjoyment. If enough different views are represented, that has potential, especially if we can set up ways of bringing many people together to fund something (so it becomes a bit more like publishing in that it incorporates many small payers, and less like art on behalf of a few rich individuals or companies).

Applying patronage to the Baen Free Library approach would be more like promoting books 1&2 ("given away") in the hopes that enough people would really want you to write book 3 that they would collectively pay you to write it, even knowing that others would be able to read it too. Not sure how this enables book 1 to be funded, however, unless it's from someone who will later take a cut of funds raised to support the subsequent books. In some ways that doesn't sound all that different from publishing, potentially, except that you're buying part of the existence of something rather than your access to it.

97:

sabik.eta writes: "already pretty obvious that Free Software (produced by the Open Source method) is gradually out-competing proprietary software"

What software do we use the most today? Web services: Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter. Are any of those Open Source?

Sure, they all run on top of linux and certainly utilize many other bits of open source. But a few success stories does not "pretty obvious" make.

Frankly, the real reason open source works well in some cases is that many geeks are already well paid in their regular job, and the additional free work gains them reputation that can get them better regular jobs. Plus they earn enough that there's some level of luxury where they can sacrifice some time/income if they want to.

The case with painters, writers, musicians, and other artists is different. Their professions default to starving/begging artist. Programmers default to code-monkey -- crappy job, but plenty to live off of.

Free / open source software is terrific, but is not a valid model for funding of art.


Charlie writes: "What's wrong with government funding?"

It's obvious to libertopians that the problem is that government funding is not perfect therefore it cannot be any good. In libertopia only the market works and when the market does not work, it's the government's fault.

98:

"if I'm willing to take a 50-70% cut in earnings (by going to the small indy publishers) or a 90-95% cut in earnings (by going direct to the public via the web).

And THAT is the issue any new model needs to address. People keep saying that artists can sell direct, but the economics don't work. Charlie runs a top 10 SF blog with 10k visitors. Let's say they're actually 10,000 different people - if all of us bought one o his books a year for an average price of $15 that's $150k! Except... he doesn't get all of that. If he self-published the publisher wold take a percentage. And he'd lose in store sales since very few bookstores will carry a self-published book. Before anyone screams 'ebooks!!!' they're 3% of the market. Growing, and in 5-10 years will probably be a force, but right now they're not.

So we can talk all we want, but people like Charlie aren't going to move to a new model and leave thousand or tens of thousands of dollars on the table each year.

99:
Frankly, the real reason open source works well in some cases is that many geeks are already well paid in their regular job, and the additional free work gains them reputation that can get them better regular jobs. Plus they earn enough that there's some level of luxury where they can sacrifice some time/income if they want to.

75% of Linux code is written by paid developers. Apple employs the engineers who develop CUPS, WebKit, Clang/LLVM, Bonjour and several other open source projects. Open source is not about donating one's work for free.

100:

Art, the problem is that knowing someone else liked a given book won't tell you anything useful unless you are intimately familiar with that person's taste. Web-based crowdsourcing has a lousy track record in this respect, even compared to expert book reviewers or an editor/marketing/sales triumvirate at a big publisher.

The rest of your argument is a straw man -- you're putting words into my mouth, and I'm not terribly sympathetic to that.

101:

This is a very good explanation of the "but a movie isn't like a handbag" thing. However, you lost me when you started in on Metallica. The fact that they've publicly stated they over-reacted, made a mistake, and they're sorry cuts no ice with you? You see as favourable a business model in which consumers interact with content creators in a way which as a creator would make me uncomfortable, and your remarks about Metallica provide a very good example of why.

102:
...at this stage it's already pretty obvious that Free Software (produced by the Open Source method) is gradually out-competing proprietary software. Is it optimal? Probably not. But it only needs to be better than the available alternatives.

And yet Linux is still 1% of the desktop.

I think a new consensus is emerging - that open source is very good at solving some well-defined problems such as building services like web servers and database engines and scripting languages and very bad at things like building UI or innovation. Whereas closed source is very good at UI and innovation.

103:

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with government funding for the arts, but there often is with the way the money is then distributed, as a committee or funding body decides what art qualifies for money and what does not.

104:

You'd be surprised what gets the stamp of approval for government funding in Norway. From my experience these projects are anything but dull, and rather quite obscure and inane (often why they need funding in the first place).

Don't they fund live-action RPGs over there?

105:

Another new business model that is gaining some steam in the niche role-playing game market (and possibly elsewhere, but I'm familiar with RPGs) is the patronage model.

For an upfront fee, you not only help fund a particular creative project but depending on the amount, you can have varying levels of creative influence.

As for ways in which authors could use this ransom novel, here's two:

1) The book goes to the top of your writing queue, at least insofar as you control it. e.g. "If I get 2,000 pounds (or other arbitrary number), I'll write another Laundry novel, though it'll take 2-3 years to make it into print, and you'll have to buy it. But it will be written _now_, as opposed to in 2 years time".

2) The book gets written _and_ the sponsors get a signed copy. This is equivalent to presales before its written. As for where the copies come from, CMAP#3 mentioned cheap author copies...

Given the cost of postage, time and writing, method 2 might not be economic (plus, publishers could get quite annoyed about it, as the author would be parasitising their own salesbase). But method 1 could be a useful way for established authors with a following to supplement their incomes (though it does nothing for publishers).

The technological infrastructure for doing things this way already exists, and I think there are other providers with escrow options to help deal with some of the trust issues (which turns the ransom into a completion bonus rather than an upfront advance).

106:

I've just republished this content on my blog without attribution.

Your "free" content is now serving my advertising and making a profit for me and the ad network I use.

Please provide more, thanks.

107:

sosorry: you are a troll. Kindly hang yourself from the nearest bridge abuttment. (And don't let the door hit you on the ass on your way out.)

108:

I'm a little surprised to see so many people from countries that have direct government support of artists acting as if it's a novel and impossible idea. I'm guessing, since this is an Anglophone site, that most people here are American, British, or Canadian.

- In the US, there's the Audio Home Recording Act. The government collects a tax on digital audio recording devices and digital media, and is then distributed to music publishers and musicians by quasi-governmental agencies like ASCAP and AFTRA. (The act calls this "royalties", rather than "tax", and it devolves some of the administrative tasks to technically private agencies, but that mostly seems to me a distinction with a difference.) I don't know exactly how these agencies decide who gets how much -- probably some estimate of popularity, I'd guess.

- As we've already seen above, Canada has a similar scheme that's a little more pervasive. So do other countries, incidentally. Spain has something of the sort too. It seems like a pretty common idea.

- I don't think the UK has a blank CD tax, but it does have a different form of direct government payment to authors: lending library royalties. It seems like a pretty good idea, and maybe other countries should adopt it too. It's probably also an idea that could be extended to the digital realm with a bit of creativity.

So I'll echo others in this thread: what's wrong withgovernment funding?

109:

The openness thing could well be temporary. Right now the freeloaders have no idea how much (or frequently how little) their favourite artists get from actual sales.

People hear of mega artists and bestselling authors coining millions and kind of assume that regular midlisst ones must be doing OK (o(100,000) dollars/euros/pounds per year) as well. They don't realize that the average midlister would be ecstatic for $100,000/year income because their actual income is a fraction of that - say o(10,000).

People also don't realize how little of the cover price goes to the author/artist. Typically authors get around 10% (less their agent's 15% commission and less taxes) of the cover - more for hard cover less for mmpb - which means that for an author to get our nominal $100,000 / year he would need to sell 100,000 books at an average price of $10 each (of $12 each if we include the agent commission). That's bestseller territory these days.

With new business models it makes sense for the artist/author to publically explain that he gets rewarded because he can and because people can understand why contributing $x for the product motivates the artist/author to continue.

110:

I see what you're saying, but I'd like to see a move by the public to paying for value. You see, it doesn't really bother me that Charlie doesn't get all of the cover price when I buy a book of his both because there are other people who make that book something I can buy (copy editors, proofreaders, printers, etc) and they deserve to get paid and because Charlie entered into a contract willingly. I think it's disrespectful toward creative folk to treat them as if they are too stupid to know what they're doing when they sign a contract. They know they're getting n% royalties, etc and in the changing landscape we have they can balance that with the idea of publishing a title themselves, releasing it on the net, going with a different publisher, etc.

To be shorter - I should be willing to pay for the value of the book to me, regardless of whether the author is desperately poor or independently wealthy. LInking the price I'm willing to pay with their finances seems odd to me.

111:

I don't see anything inherently wrong with government funding (as long as the politicians can resist getting any more political with it than the marketplace can already be), but I do think there's a problem with trying to extrapolate from current government funding models to cover all funding for content, if that's what's needed for "content as a public good".

The few government funding approaches with which I'm familiar are all shaped by the commercial market. Either they deliberately fund the non-commercial to expand what's available, or they shadow the market. The Canadian private copying levy on blank audio media is the latter -- the funds are disbursed based in large part on commercial sales, which has led to significant concerns that it's just rewarding established big artists. There are also concerns that the group that disburses the money soaks up a lot of it for administration. Other schemes, such as paying authors for ther books in libraries, are based on sampling a specific trackable way of accessing the content. So, if there hypothetically isn't a commercial market any more, and people are circulating content freely and privately, I don't see that there's much to base the payments to content creators on, if these models are to be followed. Perhaps anonymous polling could be used.

Meanwhile, payments based on usage estimates (however one gets them) doesn't seem like it would provide much financial security for a creator (versus, say, a long-term book contract). Again, the current such schemes seem more supplementary in nature, and I'm not sure how well they'd work if there wasn't a commercial market to supplement.

112:

Meanwhile, payments based on usage estimates (however one gets them) doesn't seem like it would provide much financial security for a creator (versus, say, a long-term book contract).

The idea of designing a new mechanism for end-users of content to pay its creators doesn't really affect that. A musician wanting to write an album is still going to have to find studio engineers and marketing agents (for they add value to his product). He's still going to need to impress an investor (who makes the project possible, albeit in expectation that his portfolio runs a profit at the end of the day).

The issue isn't that the creation of content isn't free - it certainly isn't and therein lies the rub. But the distribution is free. It's so free at the moment that people literally break the law and sacrifice their own internet bandwidth so that other people can have free content. There should be klaxons going off about how non-excludable this product is.

Finding a mechanism to reward content creators, while making their content essentially public domain, would be ideal. But I've been trying to wrack my brain around this one for a couple months now and haven't come up with anything workable. Perhaps some kind of measurement of content usage and user response? I'm still not certain how workable that would be with music, let alone other forms of art.

Still, it's a question we need to address. For reasons highlighted in the OP, we're at a breaking point for this good.

113:
...at this stage it's already pretty obvious that Free Software (produced by the Open Source method) is gradually out-competing proprietary software.

And yet Linux is still 1% of the desktop.

Quite so. The desktop seems to be lagging behind the rest of the industry in this respect. Even on the desktop, though, there is Firefox which is quite widely used.

In the rest of the industry, the story is quite different. For instance, among the top500 supercomputers, Linux share has grown from zero to 90% over the last decade or so; this is no more than a visible indicator of the underlying trend, though.

I think a new consensus is emerging - that open source is very good at [... A ...] and very bad at [... B ...]

In various forms, this consensus has been around for about 25 years now, with items migrating from list "B" into list "A" as time goes on. It's possible, of course, that this trend will now stop; but it would be rather surprising. Do you have any reason to believe so?

114:
After some consideration (about twenty years) I have also come to reject the "arts are like software" analogy. [...] If you've ever seen a publisher's slushpile you'd begin to have some idea of the magnitude of the problem;

This should apply to all non-software material on the Internet, though, shouldn't it? There should be slush-quality blog posts, incoherent Wikipedia articles, terrible terrible YouTube clips and Flickr photos... For the most part, however, the Internet (or maybe Google) seems to do an okay job of filtering; perhaps not a great one, and sometimes it fails altogether (the already-mentioned spam), but it seems that the well-written blogs find an audience while the slush-quality ones find well-deserved obscurity.

115:
In various forms, this consensus has been around for about 25 years now, with items migrating from list "B" into list "A" as time goes on. It's possible, of course, that this trend will now stop; but it would be rather surprising. Do you have any reason to believe so?

I'm unaware of any such trend. Open source has always been good at providing shared solutions for software engineers (or the companies that employ them) to avoid re-inventing the wheel. Linux, Apache, GCC and so on allow companies to share the cost of developing the spadework bits and concentrate on putting the valuable money-making bits on top.

On the desktop people aren't buying infrastructure they are buying solutions and solutions are the money-making bits so open source doesn't have much of a chance there. Companies aren't going to share the 'crown jewels' with their competitors. (They might support projects which undermine their competitors though, which is where Open Office gets its corporate support).

116:

@alys: You know what? I hadn't even heard of the Metallica apology. Clearly it wasn't as public as their previous outpourings on the subject. If you're a public figure (which they have been for - what - 30 years now?) then you do run the risk that some of what you say may be misrepresented, or not given the fair coverage you might want it to.

If they've seen the error of their ways, then good for them. FWIW, I did go to see them live last year, and they absolutely rocked (and I probably lost a not-insignificant part of my hearing to them).

Ultimately, though, they did do a lot of damage to internet distribution models of music in the very early days and I'm not seeing them put the same amount of effort into making that good.

117:

I contacted the Conservatives about their piss-poor turn out at the vote and got this in reply:-

Thank you for contacting us about the Digital Economy Bill. We take what you say on board, and I am happy to respond to your concerns.

Britain has been made to wait too long for legislation updating the regulatory environment for the digital and creative industries. We regret that once the Government got around to considering these issues, it did not allocate the sufficient time in the House of Commons for proper legislative scrutiny. It says a great deal about their support for the creative industries that despite considering many of these issues as far back as 2006 they have only now just brought this piece of legislation forward.

We took the decision to seek to remove those clauses of the Digital Economy Bill that we did not support or that we did not feel received proper legislative scrutiny, while supporting the Bill as a whole. Rejecting the Bill would have been an unacceptable set-back for the important measures it contains.

We support the Bill’s efforts to tackle online copyright infringement. This is an extremely serious issue that costs the creative industries hundreds of millions of pounds each year. We want to make sure that Britain has the most favourable intellectual property framework in the world for innovators, digital content creators and high tech businesses. Internet piracy also puts consumers at risk, as those who download illegal material increase the likelihood of their machines being attacked by computer viruses, and are exposed to unverified advertising and inappropriate material.

The measures in the Bill aimed at tackling online copyright infringement received robust scrutiny in the House of Lords. We were concerned about the lack of parliamentary oversight of the original clauses and as such the Bill now has a super-affirmative resolution in it. This means Parliament will debate any order that the Secretary of State lays that would allow people to be disconnected. These measures can also not be introduced for 12 months after the Bill becomes law. This means that we are by no means rushing in to these decisions and that the next Parliament will be able to consider them beforehand.

The measures in the Bill designed to tackle illegal peer to peer file sharing set up a proportionate regime that would lead to people having their internet connection temporarily suspended, but only following public consultation, repeated warnings and due process. It will not, as many have suggested, lead to people being disconnected without an appeal. Even if people are disconnected they will be able to sign up to another ISP immediately without penalty.

While we have no doubt that these measures could have been improved if the Government had allocated time for this Bill to be debated in Committee, blocking these measures in their entirety would have risked hundreds of thousands of jobs in the TV, film, music and sports industries and was therefore not something we were not willing to do.

Conservatives recognise the need to establish a workable system for unlocking the wealth of inaccessible content known as orphan works, but we have consistently stated that in no way should this Bill actually harm content creators. We were keen to address the problem of people stripping out identifying information from a digital image and wanted to clamp down on this and ensure that the Bill does not encourage such activities. We also wanted specific requirements for a search for the rights holder and a system in place if that rights holder comes forward at a later date. After Government failed to amend the Bill in line with these protections, we insisted that clause 43 be removed from the Bill.

The debate on copyright is not yet over and we will seek to revisit options for a balanced solution as part of a broader update of copyright following the General Election

...
Not sure they get it at all!

118:

Andy: Not sure they get it at all!

I think this reply clearly indicates that they do get it -- but what they get is not what you want them to get. The give-away is the repeated use of the term "Creative industries".

See also: rent-seeking, large commercial organizations, etc.

119:
In various forms, this consensus has been around for about 25 years now, with items migrating from list "B" into list "A" as time goes on. It's possible, of course, that this trend will now stop; but it would be rather surprising. Do you have any reason to believe so?

I'm unaware of any such trend. Open source has always been good at providing shared solutions for software engineers (or the companies that employ them) to avoid re-inventing the wheel. Linux, Apache, GCC and so on allow companies to share the cost of developing the spadework bits and concentrate on putting the valuable money-making bits on top.

The trend pre-dates all three of these, and pre-dates the term "open source" itself. If I remember my history correctly, it goes like this:


  • They'll never make anything.
  • OK, they made some good tools and a text editor, but they'll never make anything major like a compiler.
  • OK, they made some good tools, a text editor and a compiler (GCC), but they'll never make an operating system.
  • OK, they made some good tools, a text editor, a compiler and a hobby operating system (Linux), but it'll never be a proper one.
  • OK, they made some good tools, a text editor, a compiler and a server operating system (Linux improved, Apache), but it'll never be an enterprise-class one.
  • OK, they made some good tools, a text editor, a compiler and an enterprise-class operating system (Linux improved again), but they'll never make it on the desktop.

FOSS has not "always been good at" things like Linux, Apache and GCC; those were, at various stages, seemingly impossible goals, well beyond anything that's ever been done as FOSS. Yet, each time, somehow, the barriers turned out not to be there after all (or, in the case of Linux, a new development method was invented, later called "open source"). Nor were the barriers each time technical — the growth in Linux from a hobby system to an enterprise-class one faced some pretty daunting institutional ones. Compared to these, is the desktop really fundamentally more difficult?

120:

"Compared to these, is the desktop really fundamentally more difficult?"

The short answer is no, it isn't.

The longer version is that the barriers are in this case non-technical again, but rather than being external, they are largely cultural barriers within the FOSS community.

Specifically, the notion that good design of user experiences strongly benefits from the 'benevolent dictator' model, in much the same way as good design in other aspects of software does (such as APIs), and that user experience considerations should actually trump technical ones, is very hard for the FOSS community to accept.

And yet, we are seeing exactly this sort of innovation now. The project that became Firefox started as a one-man rebellion against the Mozilla browser's design-by-committee encrusted user interface, eventually took over the parent project, and now has a ~20% market share. Similarly, the Ubuntu desktop started 5 years ago as one (wealthy) man's crusade to make a user friendly desktop OS out of the merely-technically superior Debian, is now arguably on par with the latest Windows in terms of experience, and is continuing to improve steadily at a pace such that I expect it to overtake OSX in usability within 2-3 years or so, with the market-share to surely follow. Google's Android is already being compared to the iPhone OS rather than to Windows Mobile. And so on.

The really interesting question is, what new challenge will the FOSS community take on *next*?

121:

The elephant in the room is of course that content is excludable as hell before it's released. No one's getting at that unpublished novel in Charlie's desk until he releases it.

Back in the day this was recognized and rights were granted to encourage this release because content is only a public good when it's in the public, so let's be nice to these rare individuals who make it to encourage them.

Nowadays of course the balance is tilted and everyone (The public because it wants an endless supply of fresh entertainment, programmers because they figured the way to get rich with the internet is to monetize the content others produce) makes sure to create an atmosphere where creators are led to believe they are totally replaceable, dependent on the goodwill of the audience who at best may grant them the boon of their attention (What, you want money as well? Cheek!) and god forbid they get uppity.

Creators should be seen and not heard is the new zeitgeist

122:

"The elephant in the room is of course that content is excludable as hell before it's released. No one's getting at that unpublished novel in Charlie's desk until he releases it."

True. You might find the 'Street Performer Protocol' of some interest as an interesting solution that treats this as a feature: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Threshold_pledge_system

Kickstarter is one of several current attempts at implementing SPP in some form: http://www.kickstarter.com/

123:

I didn't mean to offend.

The "our" I spoke of was specifically referring to my country and our (the American) system of public funding for the arts, not because I think we are exceptional or better than everyone else but rather simply because this is the clusterfuck that I belong to and have seen up close for so many years. The American system is simply the only system for public funding that I can speak about as something that I have been involved in and seen the results of. I can think of a thousand things that should be changed and fixed and better funded, but it isn't all shit.

US politicians grandstand about everything, but this doesn't seem particularly unique to the US. A lot of public funds still go to some pretty out-there stuff, but that is neither here nor there. My point wasn't that the US system of using public funds for the arts was the best, but simply that public funding for the arts and market based funding aren't necessarily at odds with one another. I was trying to grab at positive bits of how it works here to make that point, not drum the whole system up as something to be admired and emulated.

Public funding of the arts is good for the business of selling artistic content, not necessarily in competition with it.

124:
Similarly, the Ubuntu desktop started 5 years ago as one (wealthy) man's crusade to make a user friendly desktop OS out of the merely-technically superior Debian, is now arguably on par with the latest Windows in terms of experience

Isn't that an argument against your case? If it takes five years to (arguably) catch up to Windows then OS X is over the horizon and goodbye.

125:
If it takes five years to (arguably) catch up to Windows then OS X is over the horizon and goodbye.

Not really. A lot of that was a question of building up momentum and putting together the technical and institutional infrastructure. All that remains now is to sustain the momentum and to keep on fixing the myriad tiny details that make up usability, like going through all the programs that use the system tray and making them all consistent (to give a current example).

The comparison with Windows usability is not so much a goal to achieve as a rough indication of the current state of the on-going effort.

126:

Note that it took Ubuntu five years to catch up with where Windows is *now*, not where it was five years ago, and the project is definitely *not* slowing down or resting on it's laurels. The next (10.04) release due in a few days will see another dramatic improvement.

127:

Think of it as the equivalent of passing the hat around during a street performance, just before the spectacular ending.

Oh dear, I do hope we can think up something better. The "pass the hat around before the spectacular finale" convention has a huge impact on the pacing and structure of street shows, almost invariably (IMHO) to their detriment. Watch some juggling shows that don't have this constraint (circuses, online videos, or your local juggling convention's Public Show), and you'll see how much better juggling shows can be.

Specials

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This page contains a single entry by Milena Popova published on April 14, 2010 3:45 PM.

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