Economics, Art, and Ethics

2007-11-05

Over at kottke.org, Joel Turnipseed asks Cory Doctorow why it makes sense to give your words away. Cory explains:

There are three reasons why it makes sense to give away books online. The first is that publishing has always been in this kind of churn and flux—who gets published, how they get paid, what the economic structure is of the publishers, where the publishers are, all of that stuff has changed all of the time. And it's just hubris that makes us think that this particular change—the computer change—is the one that's going to destroy publishing and that it must be prevented at all costs. We'll adapt. If we need to adapt, we'll adapt. And today, the way that we adapt is by giving away e-books and selling p-books.

So that's the economic reason. But then there is the artistic reason: we live in a century in which copying is only going to get easier. It's the 21st century, there's not going to be a year in which it's harder to copy than this year; there's not going to be a day in which it's harder to copy than this day; from now on. Right? If copying gets harder, it's because of a nuclear holocaust. There's nothing else that's going to make copying harder from now on. And so, if your business model and your aesthetic effect in your literature and your work is intended not to be copied, you're fundamentally not making art for the 21st century. It might be quaint, it might be interesting, but it's not particularly contemporary to produce art that demands these constraints from a bygone era. You might as well be writing 15-hour Ring Cycle knock-offs and hoping that they'll be performed at the local opera. I mean, yes, there's a tiny market for that, but it's hardly what you'd call contemporary art.

So that's the artistic reason. Finally, there's the ethical reason. And the ethical reason is that the alternative is that we chide, criminalize, sue, damn our readers for doing what readers have always done, which is sharing books they love—only now they're doing it electronically. You know, there's no solution that arises from telling people to stop using computers in the way that computers were intended to be used. They're copying machines. So telling the audience for art, telling 70 million American file-sharers that they're all crooks, and none of them have the right to due process, none of them have the right to privacy, we need to wire-tap all of them, we need to shut down their network connections without notice in order to preserve the anti-copying business model: that's a deeply unethical position. It puts us in a world in which we are criminalizing average people for participating in their culture.

I couldn't have said it better myself.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal