Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How Do You Make an Income From Your Work In a World of Perfect Copies?

There was a recent discussion on Google+ about the future of digital media, and print on demand technology. Fabricator technology has been around for a while, but the quality of the manufacturing material has recently improved, an continues to improve. So what happens when you can not only print a book that looks just like a traditional book, but you can print consumer products like this, on demand? Or even more complex objects, like computers?

There's a great short story by sci-fi author Corey Doctorow that explores this idea, about a future where fabricators are illegal because they violate intellectual property laws. So in the story, after being released from jail for breaking this law, someone builds a fabricator...that builds fabricators. There's simply no stopping, copying. So what kind of future will we have when you can make a perfect copy of just about anything in your living room, no matter who originally owns the patent or copyright?

Below is a video that suggests what the future may hold for 3D printing:

Recorded information takes up space in the form of bites and bits, but the storage space is yours. You have X amount of RAM, and when you use up that RAM, it's used up. You don't take someone else's RAM when you copy their stuff. Case in point: you can copy someone's data without them knowing about it, because they have lost no data as a result. You have gained something: you have gained their data, but now both of you have the same data. There is no difference between the data that they have, and the data that you have. Your data is identical, but without loss in the transfer, and without the expenditure of physical RAM on the part of the person you're copying from. They've lost nothing physical, and you've gained nothing physical. This is why the metaphor of stealing a CD or DVD from a store that the big media companies are so fond of doesn't quite apply. Nothing physical is taken or lost.

If I can take a digital copy and produce a print or physical copy that's indistinguishable from a mass produced copy, we're talking about something very very different than an inferior copy of an original. Only in the case of original art is this not the case, but as far as publishing or any other kind of reproduction, the difference is already becoming increasingly minimal.

The ethics of the practice of copying is arguable, but it's important to consider this idea of the perfect copy that digital reproduction allows when we talk about the value of digital reproduction--value gained, and value lost. When we both own the same bites and bits, we both own the same product. So what does the person who copies take from the person who creates? The best that I can gather, assuming that proper attribution is given, is control--someone can take your creation and remix it or manipulate it however they wish--and potential income--income that you would expect to gain if you were able to sell copies of your work. So what we're really talking about is the perceived loss of potential income, a potential income we can't predict, since people who copy aren't always the same people who would otherwise buy if they couldn't copy.

In the new digital economy, you have to consider that you don't have control of either of these things. You can do what you can to maximize that potential income to your advantage, you can try to take legal action against people who alter or manipulate, or copy your work, but it's an uphill battle. As long as those perfect copies can exist, we have to think about media--how we consume it and sell it--in a whole new way.

The Creative Commons

I should say first that I'm not qualified to discuss the Creative Commons with any authority or depth, but I recommend searching the names, Cory Doctorow, and Nina Paley, for a more in depth discussion on the subject.There are even better authorities, but I don't have the names on hand. At any rate, I'll try to scratch the surface, but I'm still learning about this stuff myself.

Through Creative Commons licenses, some artists have been offering their work to the public for free, or limited use. For instance, Corey Doctorow offers his books for free as downloads under a Creative Commons license that allows sharing, but not selling.

Nina Paley wrote and animated a feature film released under one of the most liberal Creative Commons license that allows sharing, selling, remixing, and just about any kind of copying as long as attribution is given.

Paley is making more from lecture tours, merchandising and donations than she would have ever made if she released the film traditionally through a distributor. Corey Doctorow says that giving his books away for free as downloads actually increases his hardcopy book sales. But the creative commons, or allowing your public to copy and distribute your work with limited boundaries, is still unproven as an effective means for an artist to make a living, at least on a wide scale. These success stories are still few and far between.

You can learn more about Creative Commons licenses:


Cartoonist Colleen Doran, the creator of the long running comic book series, A Distant Soil, discusses:


what she thinks about online copying and how its effected the sales of her work. She's none to happy about this trend, to say the least.

George R. R. Martin And The New Internet Impassioned Audience

Here's the reality that I think the marketplace must accommodate: People aren't going to produce work of a very high quality that involves a very big big time investment--as in, full-time employment--without compensation or a means to support themselves. The public is accustomed to a very high level of craft in the products they consume. They're not going to tolerate a shoddy product, and when they like something they want more of it. Especially now in the new environment where artists have a direct connection to their audience.

The vehemence of George R. R. Martin's fan base is a prime example of how this direct connection has impacted the marketplace. George R. R. Martin is the author of the popular and best selling Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series of books that was recently adapted into the TV series, A Game of Thrones, by HBO. Martin's recent installment of the series, A Dance With Dragons, took longer than any of the previous installments for him to write, and the release date continued to be pushed forward to the frustration of his fans. His fans felt entitled to a new book, and were angry that he wasn't coming through. Nothing like this kind of entitlement existed before the internet. This kind of passion is double-edged--on the one hand, this new audience feels as if they own part of the author in way that has only been paralleled in the world of TV and movie celebrities. They feel the author owes them. On the other hand, passionate fans are passionate consumers, and I believe that his audience is so passionate about what they love, that they would be willing to support his efforts even if they had access to the books for free. The question is how much they would be willing to support that work, and how much they would be willing to remunerate the artist if they didn't have a need or willingness to buy his books in a traditional retail outlet. But would this audience support the artist directly, or would their still be a need for an intermediary, like a publisher or distributor, or even something more akin to a promoter or publicist?

So this question of potential income, and how artists will support themselves in this new environment of perfect copies continues to be unresolved. I don't have an answer here, but it's a question that all artists and creators are going to have to confront, eventually.

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  1. I wish I did know the answer to this question. Perhaps in the end artists will all turn to fine art and original art sales to get by. As for writers, well I don't know.
    I've also been researching Creative Commons. Thank you for clarifying it for me. :)

  2. But there are still folks like Paley and Doctorow who seem to have figured out an angle. I don't know that because perfect copies can be made, people won't be willing to pay for the privilege in some way. Again: people demand a high level of craft in the art they consume, and they demand a frequent and steady flow of media. The only way to generate that media is to have people fully employed in its creation. Consumers will HAVE to accommodate this, or they won't get the art they want as frequently as they want it, and consumers have gotten more demanding then ever as result of social media.