Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Artists want to reform DMCA, but is problem deeper?

Earlier this month, 180 artists sent an open letter to Congress in the Washington Post to reform the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) stating the copyright no longer allows artists to earn a living. While there are multiple issues, the main complaint here is against Google and their company YouTube, which these artists feel are exploiting their creations at their expense. You can read a summary of these issues here at the Guardian, which mostly revolve around how advertising revenue is collected.

While YouTube could certainly reform their practices, there’s a bigger problem here that will be harder to solve. Kent Anderson at the Scholarly Kitchen Blog points the problem out after examining similar circumstance happening now in the publishing industry: “The fundamental contributor to the erosion of copyright is the expectation for 'free information.' This is an expectation the large technology companies have been happy to set and users have been happy to adopt.” In other words, in the past few years, people have been trained that writing, music, news, etc., should be given out for free. This feeling is understandable (of course we want free stuff!), but it is also doesn’t help the system that creates the art, especially the content creators lower down the pecking order. To illustrate his point, Anderson tells a personal story about presenting a new publication idea to a focus group. Here is what the focus group said about the new product:

"They felt even the rough prototype was superior to its competitors in the market, and they trusted us to execute to that level. The enthusiasm was palpable. When we asked them what they’d pay for it, they unanimously agreed they would not pay for it. They expected to receive it for free—somehow."
Now, I like getting free stuff, too. But it is deeper than that—we've been trained to think that beautiful, complicated, useful systems and products somehow pay for themselves by just existing. This type of free model, in various forms (for example, the "freemium" approach), might actually work for some companies, but obviously is failing for some markets. The real solution to shoring up the failing the artistic (and journalistic) economy is for us to cough up the money and pay for things that we use and like.

It’s that simple. It takes a lot of work to put together music and we shouldn’t expect to get it for free. Quality takes a lot of work and we shouldn't expect it to appear for nothing. I know, easy to say, but hard to do. But it is something that we all should just swallow—even celebrate—and content providers should expect it, too, and make the process of contributing easy. Otherwise, there's a chance that the stuff we enjoy will just disappear.

What do you think? How do you think we can change the expectations?


  1. I recently proposed a wager with an economist friend that twenty years from now crowd patronage (e.g. Patreon) will be the default financing mechanism for many artists. I argued that copyright maximalists getting more control (e.g. congress responding positively to letters like this) will help the process. By having legal and technical means of capturing more consumer surplus, fewer people will be willing to pay maximalists.

    The deeper problem is financing mismatch. Yes, quality takes a lot of work. But once the product is done, distribution can be close to free. Then paying for distribution, for your copy, feels awkward. Given the opportunity, will people pay for production? Billions of Kickstarter dollars amount to a sometimes. As crowd funding finds its way, I'm willing to guess that it will happen more often.

    The maximalists will keep their elaborate blockbusters, but the small acts, podcasts, YouTube channels? We'll see.

    1. I think you are absolutely right about Kickstarter and crowdfunding––I think it will become a bigger part of the market, too. However, I think the industry needs to get better about figuring out advertising, which was the default way of paying for "free" stuff (radio, television) for years. We haven't quite figured out how to do that yet in non-annoying way for the internet, which is one reason why news organizations are failing. The YouTube complaint described here is basically an advertising complaint.

    2. Oh, and another possible route is the NPR model. "Please pay for this stuff you are using...please! We're going to annoy you until you do!" Of course, more and more, they are supplementing with advertising, too, but they do the advertisements themselves.