Content producers of the world unite!
By focusing on consumption, both sides in the debate over illegal file-sharing ignore the value of creative labour.
Everyone and their dog knows that the media is being torn asunder by the forces unleashed by the internet. Almost every movie ever made is available on BitTorrent, half of television’s history is easily accessible worldwide courtesy of copyright-flouting Chinese video websites and, despite the success of legitimate services such as iTunes and Spotify, illegal downloads continue to dwarf online music sales. Then there are newspapers, almost all of which appear to be unprofitable - a situation that, by all accounts, is only going to get worse for producers.
A recent European Commission report into digital competitiveness claims that a full third of the ‘digital generation’ - young people that grew-up with the internet - ‘are not willing to pay anything at all’ for online media such as videos or music (1). Although few people in their right minds stay up at night worrying about the declining profit margins of media giants Time-Warner or News Corporation, surely artists and other creators are entitled to payment for their work?
In fact, the insistence by business and governments that file-sharing is destroying the economy has simply gone too far. In 2008, the US Chamber of Commerce claimed that 750,000 Americans had been put out of work by illegal file-sharing (2). Wired magazine crunched the numbers and discovered that, were the Chamber of Commerce’s claims correct, the number put out of work by illegal file-sharing would account for eight per cent of the unemployed workforce in the US (3). To call the US Chamber of Commerce’s claims hyperbole would be an understatement. Meanwhile the legal crusade against individuals continues full speed-ahead: Joel Tenenbaum, a American student convicted of illegal file-sharing, has been ordered to pay damages of $675,000 which amounts to a staggering $22,500 per song (4).
Buggy whips and file-sharing
Set against this is a growing movement of internet users who thumb their noses at the media industry, often using the rhetoric of anti-corporation activists. It is not uncommon to read on internet forums populated by the technorati such as Slashdot that cultural production - music, books, visual art, journalism - should be a hobby, not a job. A typical analogy is that media companies are like ‘buggy whip’ manufacturers - that is, they are about to be put out of business by a new technology, just as the makers of horse-and-trap accessories were ruined by the motor car.
What theories like this miss is that, seductive as it is, such technological determinism underestimates social factors and individual volition. This simple fact hasn’t stopped it from being raised to the status of a homespun ideology with its own gurus in the form of journalists Jeff Jarvis, Chris Anderson and others (only in journalism would practitioners be paid to celebrate the decline of their means of making a living).
While there’s little doubt that the distribution systems for culture are in the process of changing, this does not mean that the activities themselves are outmoded. In fact, there has always been tremendous pressure on artists to quit and find something else to do. Philip Glass worked as a plumber before he started to profit from being a composer. Art is hard and market economies aren’t renowned for being fair. The question today is, will a young composer stick to the pipes and forget about the symphonies? If the chance of getting paid is effectively zero then many undoubtedly will.
Despite its radical patina, today’s copyright infringement lobby is completely lacking in a coherent ideology. This is illustrated by the fact that it seeks to consume the fruit of labour, but has absolutely no interest in its production, other than making vague statements about how not paying is acceptable because artists have not fared well at the hands of business. The sphere of industrial relations is barely touched upon.
‘Voluntary’ and ‘unpaid’ are not the same
The free software and open-source movements are often held up as shining examples of ‘post-economics’ working or ‘the gift economy’ but the comparison is not apposite. The problem is that contributors to free and open-source software may well engage in unpaid labour, but they do so voluntarily. But someone who makes a living by having their words, images or sounds sold does not. Denying such producers royalties does nothing to change what Marx identified as capitalism’s need to produce surplus-value - profit (5). In simpler terms, not paying for music might hurt the recording industry, but it does infinitely more damage to the industry’s workers. The music industry’s desire to wring as much profit from consumers as possible, or Rupert Murdoch’s desperate decision to charge for access to newspapers online, simply aren’t the issues.
Indeed, Richard Stallman, the de facto leader of the free software movement that has swept the world of information technology argues that while sharing is inevitable and to be encouraged, this doesn’t mean artists should necessarily go unpaid. Stallman, a committed anti-copyright activist who insists the term ‘intellectual property’ is fundamentally misleading, makes an exception for works of art: ‘The purpose of copyright - on musical recordings, or anything else - is simple: to encourage writing and art.’ Stallman then goes on to suggest alternative ways to remunerate artists which take into account the fact that file-sharing isn’t going away (6). Stallman’s argument is about denying freedom of choice, in particular with relation to tools such as computer software, not about why the latest recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle or a Britney Spears song should cost nothing. Free software, as Stallman defined it, is about freedom, not cost.
Making a direct connection between this and the fact that many people expect everything on the internet to have no cost would require rather tortured logic.
‘[N]on-free license[s] are OK, in my opinion, for art and opinion - I don’t believe there is a moral imperative to make those sorts of works free’, Stallman told technology journalist Federico Biancuzzi (7).
Giving up on production
Of course, it’s not really freeniks on the net who are the source of the copyright wars. The business world began its retreat from production long before anyone outside of a tiny coterie of military researchers and technology professionals had even heard of the internet. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, business is not much interested in production any more, instead preferring to profit from services and complex financial instruments. Indeed, as spiked contributor James Heartfield points out, business has not in fact raised productivity by investing in new technology, but has simply lessened its investment in production as a whole:
‘In Britain, amazingly, the average productivity of labour actually fell, as a larger proportion of the workforce moved over into more labour-intensive and less capital-intensive jobs, service sector jobs, with lower levels of technological investment: changing sheets in hotels, or flipping burgers rather than assembling cars.’ (8)
Elsewhere Heartfield writes: ‘The capitalist class’ historic mission to revolutionise production belongs to another era. These days they prefer stability to change. It is not that entrepreneurs have given up on the pursuit of profit, just that chasing profit is an activity that is increasingly divorced from material innovation. Rather than generating new wealth through innovation, Britain’s capitalists are increasingly involved in desperate rent-seeking activities, plundering the public sector or living off the commissions earned on financial intermediation in the City of London.’ (9)
Of course, this is not directly related to record companies apparently attempting to increase profits by suing file-sharers but it does indicate that the dominant ideology of the day is one that is less interested than ever in actually making anything. Given that a music industry lawyer recently indicated that consumers cannot expect legitimately paid-for downloads to work permanently, effectively changing the nature of the transaction from a purchase to a licence, how else can the industry’s plans be described other than as rent-seeking? (10)
Ironically, the music and movie industries insistence that file-sharing is theft echoes the nineteenth-century proto-anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon’s slogan ‘property is theft’, ultimately playing into the hands of anti-copyright activists who insist that whatever file-sharing might be, intangible things such as songs, films and words cannot be considered property. If legitimate downloads are licensed rather than bought outright, then the industry is going some way to proving its critics right, even if they disagree about whether or not a cost should apply.
Consumed by consumption
‘Content is king’ may have been the motto of the dot.com boom of the late 1990s, but the very slogan itself reveals a disregard for the work that actually goes into producing ‘content’ - what we used to call journalism, music, illustration, art, fiction, films and other forms of cultural output. Additionally, for the last three decades much of the sociological inquiry performed in the academy has been focused on consumption rather that production - the very discipline of Cultural Studies was founded on the divorcing of the sociology of culture from that of work.
Where once production was the key battleground in social struggles, today it is consumption that has people manning the (very much virtual) barricades: hence the appearance of anti-consumerist narratives from the left as well as the right. Whether the message is that ‘over-consumption’ will destroy the ecosystem, that watching television and going shopping serves to distract people from their duty to rebel or simply the good, old-fashioned notion that poor people are awful and so are the things they buy, the ideas that underpin these understandings of the world are all located in the same, erroneous, place: the sphere of consumption.
What all of these varying theses conveniently ignore is that money is not actually produced from thin air. Money, capital if you like, is rooted in actual social relationships between people. Simply wishing that things should be free or that money can be produced out of thin air doesn’t mean they should be - and only a culture that has no real understanding of work would ever argue otherwise.
In a very real sense copyright is used as a tool to manage - and create - artificial scarcity. But simply demanding it is abolished won’t create a socialist - or capitalist - utopia on the net. In fact, all it will do is devalue labour even further.
Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. Visit his website here.
(1) See the European Commission Digital Competitiveness report here.
(2) See the US Chamber of Commerce report here (PDF)
(3) Fiction or Fiction: 750,000 American jobs lost to IP piracy, David Kravets, Wired, October 3, 2008
(4) A very, very expensive playlist, Chris Girard, Boston Globe, 4 April 2009
(5) See Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, ‘The process of the production of capital, Chapter 1’, by Karl Marx
(6) End the war on sharing, Richard Stallman
(7) Stallman discusses Free Software and GPLv3, Federico Biancuzzi, O’Reilly Network, April 13, 2009
(8) Living Marxism, James Heartfield, Platypus 1917, December 1, 2008
(9) State capitalism in Britain, James Heartfield, Metamute, 24 June 2009
(10) Steven Hodson, Lawyer says it’s stupid to expect DRM’d goods to work forever, Inquisitr, 30 July 2009