The Fallacy Of Free

Free is good, right? Well, not always.

This post has been brewing for quite some time, but I never seem to have gotten around to writing it. The catalyst was last week's discovery of a new online arts magazine, titled, provocatively enough, "Pilfered Magazine" (I'm not going to legitimize their existence by providing a link; you can find them yourself if you want). The site's layout was actually quite lovely, and the photography displayed seemed quite good. The problem was this: all the photos were "found" online, i.e., used without permission, as in, stolen.

Here's a good synopsis of the current state of events, via the Copyright Alliance blog:

http://blog.copyrightalliance.org/2010/02/infringing-site-re-imagining-our-perspective

Now, you're probably aware that there's a growing anti-copyright movement that's been around for a while and continues to gain ground. Folks who promote this seem to be primarily interested in sharing music and video files without having to pay for them, again, stealing. They'll argue fair use, deep pockets on the part of the movie studios, etc., but my guess is very few of them actually have to try to earn a living creating the content they so willingly steal and gripe about having to pay for.

It's very, very, very disturbing to me that many folks out there feel that it's entirely acceptable for me to have spent the last 15 years of my life spending gobs of money on education and equipment, working like a demon, sacrificing relationships, etc., all in the name of perfecting my craft, just so they can have the fruits of that labor for free.

Also interesting is the hypocrisy of sites like boingboing.net and neatorama.com, collators of news that is overall quite fascinating and entertaining, whose writers decry copyright protections when it comes to enforcement of rules when the law is on the side of the record labels or movie studios, but get quite belligerent when one of their readers has a photo ripped off.

Which is it going to be kids - rules or no rules? These self-titled "copyfighters" talk out of both sides of their mouths. Cory Doctorow might be a fine sci-fi writer and has definitely earned his bully pulpit, but I don't agree with him on this one -- there needs to be strong copyright protection law right alongside open source and creative commons, and let the content creators choose which route to follow. Don't undermine the protections afforded to content creators by copyright law just because you're too cheap to spend $12 on a music CD or mp3 download.

I'm willing to bet that the folks who willingly steal music, photos and video online would quite disapprove of my dropping by their homes and stealing the lawn furniture or a nice shirt from a clothesline. Suddenly, the argument of, "Well, it was out there for all the world to see, what did you expect?" doesn't seem quite so legitimate.

Sure, creative commons is a great idea and one that definitely has a place. Sure, fans may get wind of musicians or artists via the work they've put online for free and catapult the artist into fame and fortune, but that happens about as frequently as you see a herd of unicorns strutting down First Avenue farting rainbows.

And who really catapults that fortunate few to prominence? The very record labels and promoters vilified by the copyfight crowd. Why? To make money off royalties so they can run their business, invest in new acts, and, yes, make a profit. No business that expects to stick around for more than a week needs to turn a profit. Even charities turn profits in the form of investment dividends; otherwise they'd quickly run out of money and be able to help no one.

Do not these people understand that, if they undermine a content-creator's ability to own and thereby control their own work, the only work available will be that of hobbyists who have other sources of income, or folks who've made their money via licensing and are now so wealthy that sales no longer matter? The people in the second group will eventually die off, leaving only the hobbyists and trust-fund kids to make cute pictures of kittens in fields of daisies, or, even more likely, mashups of stolen high-quality work from all the now-destitute content creators.

Do I pay for my music? Absolutely. I admittedly partook of a few downloaded mp3s back in the day, but quickly realized the hypocrisy of that behavior and promptly went back to the record store. I pay for my software, ebooks, and movies, too. All of it. That stuff costs real money to produce, and I don't know of any business that will survive by expending large sums of money to give away the resulting products.

Why not then go after the root cause of the profiteering, then, instead of the rule that the profiteers abuse? Seems to me that the music industry has been hiding behind copyright to deflect scrutiny from its Dickensian business practices, and everyone's been trying to flog the copyright protections rather than the folks who are abusing the copyright creators. The labels don't create the songs (well, discounting the Britney Spears music factories), they're distributors who extract copyright from the artist in exchange for access to the sales channels.

Anyway, to wrap up this rant, copyright reform is necessary and welcome; the elimination of protections for content creators is completely unwelcome. 

Follow me on Twitter

  • Via @ASMP Biz: Developing “The Creative Habit” as a Path to Mastery: [by Tom Kennedy] Recently, I have been re... bit.ly/13G6VVv Yesterday