It’s always fun dandling binary oppositions on the knee. I submit to you that much of modern cultural history is permeated with a dialectic. First, there was religion vs science – where the former was the leviathan trying to defend its territory ruthlessly; second the ‘two cultures’ of art vs science, with the latter partly adopting religion’s role. Now, I suggest, the two cultures are copyright vs copyleft. This latter pairing is something I’m obsessed with.
Margaret Atwood has become a persistent advocate for a book called The Gift, by Lewis Hyde, and thanks to her it has been issued for the first time in Britain only this year (it was originally published in 1979). She’s certainly done more good this way than through her fatuous and insulting LongPen, that’s for sure.
It’s a stunningly thoughtful book, and provides an anthropology of the ‘gift economy’. The first half looks at the history of gift economies around the world; the second, at the specific artistic careers of Whitman and Pound. Most interesting of all perhaps are the conclusion and new afterword. The central question is: how can the artist (and for this read anyone who is creative – scientific endeavour is part of it, too) relate to the marketplace? How can ‘gift’ and ‘commodity’ coexist without one destroying the other in some way?
We’re trapped between the Scylla of Disneyfied, Hollywoodized, DRM-bound copyright, with owners of mass-market artistic output obsessed with controlling its consumption, and the Charybdis of the freeform, open-source, Creative Commons world of copyleft where it’s hard to make more than a few groats. Perhaps this penury doesn’t matter. But to someone like me, a freelancer who relies on selling time and output for money, it’s hard not to think about it. I’m not being paid to pontificate here (and rightly so, no doubt!), but people who write their blogs in work time are being paid, you know.
There are so many interesting gift economies at work. A random sample:
– open-source software
(Though he chooses to overlook that a huge amount of the blogosphere consists of maundering self-pity and passing on memic dreck, neither of which I’m immune to myself, I confess.)
– artistic output of all kinds – it was lovely to receive
– recycling, for that matter
– and countless more, such as the advice we share with friends.
Sometimes I feel lost in the middle: I run two commercially disastrous (or at least unremarkable) businesses with a friend, for example – though our lack of wholesale commitment to them probably explains a lot. Realistically, both Reverb and Thoughtplay belong more in the gift economy realm. For the first, we have tried to support new authors, pumping in our own money to little gain, though some good things have come out of it all for some of them. For the latter, What Should I Read Next? makes a trickle of cash, which means we’re only half-way to breaking even after a year – but it has also provided at least passing entertainment for hundreds of thousands of people, tens of thousands of them loyally returning again and again. It’s a good feeling. The problem for us commercially is that we lack the technical skills to do stuff like this without paying people to do the coding – which means we either seek funding, or we don’t do it. Our speciality is ‘ideas’, which are more copyleft than copyright. All these things take time, which has to be funded somehow.
Lewis Hyde’s only answer to how “modern artists have resolved the problem of their livelihood” is threefold, and holds no magic surprises:
– take a second job
– find patronage
– sell your work.
For all my hopes that Paul and I could have supported new authors on to success, and in the context of the zillions of manuscripts we had to reject, I can’t help but think authors expect too much: they all think they have a divine right to commercial support, just because that’s happened for a mere 200 years (they certainly don’t realise that even most successful authors have to work all the time to eke a living, and only a tiny number of soaraway bestsellers buck this). But there’s so much crap out there. It makes me wonder sometimes whether the much-demonised ‘vanity publishing’ isn’t actually a damned good idea – or Lulu is the best model, and traditional publishers with deep enough pockets should look there for the few rising stars and then snap ’em up.
In the course of vomiting all this out, it occurs that maybe Google is evil after all. Its business model seems to rely almost exclusively on commodifying copyleft, whether it’s selling advertising on the back of search results, themselves an amalgamation of other people’s content, or putting up the world’s books, or getting users to improve its image indexing. True, it ‘gives back’ by letting us all search for free. But who’s to say that won’t one day change? On the other side of the coin, Google has enabled us humble oiks to monetise our websites – but AdSense has become so utterly ubiquitous that maybe its days are numbered. I do find it surprising that enough people click on the ads to sustain this economy in the first place – but then again this is the same world where supposedly 10% of spam is clicked on. Go figure.
What the hell am I venting all this for? Ach, I dunno, I’m just interested. And I’m maybe at a crossroads in life. Having spent eight years freelancing, I wonder at my age how long I can get away with my random sort of life. But also: it’s great, and I love all the different tangents that I’m free to explore. So, if I can continue to blunder some sort of living as I’ve done so far, there’s much to celebrate. Here’s hoping I can.
(Actually, all this is probably me arguing myself round to offering to do
Copyright vs copyleft. I want to know what you think. You read books and watch films and devour story arcs. Are you always happy to pay for them? Under what conditions? Is it your right to watch series three of Lost when it suits you? Who pays the piper? Do creators expect too much? Should they abandon the world of copyright and go left, seeking remuneration in other ways? If so, what ways? And how do you catch a squirrel?
This is far and away my longest post ever, and doesn’t have the point I thought it might have done when it started. Ah well. So it goes.