I am thumbing through WiredNews over lunch and read an article about the abuse of authors on the net. It seems that certain folks are now getting up-in-arms about the trade in used books. Is nothing sacred?
The article summarizes something like this: books are expensive to make – writing, publishing, and all that jazz costs money – and so some authors and publishers are bitter that their work is showing up second hand in online stores like Amazon and Half.com – not just as alternatives, but competing with new copies of the same book, and at a cut price. The retort to this is in the second half of the article: the sharing of second hand books is a time-honoured tradition and things like libraries are fundamentally based on the idea that books have an unwritten but respected multi-user licence: Pass it along and share it until the pages fall out.
My concern is over content. When does a novel, or a piece of writing – in both the minds of its creator and audience – become something more than marketable content? For that matter, when does any artistic and cultural expression of any human being living in this society change from something that is freely tradable, and shareable to something that is limited to only those with the $$ to pay up.
I’m going to step away from the idea that artists need to make money: in this arguement most people fail to recognise that there is a vast disparity between the successful and unsuccessful. Those who have it, have lots of it. And those who are just starting are rarely supporting themselves on their art. Money for the artist cannot be an issue, because any self-respecting society should support people adding to the cultural integrity of said society. So what are we left with: cost of production. Fair. Pay for the units at cost plus a fair markup for the time and energy and lets move on. But then what about the free…?
Free? Internet and digital data has made content distribution a liquid medium: if I had the time and energy I could probably download a thousand books in an afternoon. What would I do with them? Read a few: store the rest. I don’t know.
The fact is producers of media – including things such as text, audio, video, and software – are caught in a confusing and dangerous situation. The technology exists to make them obsolete: of course we can understand why they don’t like this. But do we sympathize? Not really. We have been paying $20 a shot for CDs for years: a gouge when you realize that they probably cost about $2 to make and the rest goes to turning the artists and their entourage into royalty.
How are we supposed to respect this? A vast majority of the population is being held in the cultural monopolizing grasp of a small group of self-promoting contributors: until recently they had the means to distribute and we did not. Hense it was a rock/hardplace situation: you wanted to play, then you needed to pay up because everything was coming through a single pipeline. But now, the pipeline has become an ever-hungry leech strapped onto the back of a growing network of “private” media shares. The leech is still hungry, but the blood is running thin.