The triumph of niceness

Publication date: 17 March 2011
Originally published 2010 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.

 

In my last column, I discussed the surprising fact that DRM can actually work, provided the people who make it don't maniacally tighten their grip until all of the customers slip through their fingers.

Unfortunately, that's exactly what the big content companies are all doing. Perhaps they'll change. But it doesn't matter.

The reason why it doesn't matter is that every kind of mass-market creative work, from books to 3D games, is getting easier and easier for artists - or, at most, loose artist collectives, more like your local hippie food co-op than like Time Warner - to create, and then distribute direct to consumers.

In the olden days, if you wanted to listen to one o' them new-fangled records, the amoral content companies were the only game in town. And so it remained through several generations of technical improvement. You had to buy your music, movies or, later, software, from somewhere. And that "somewhere" almost always belonged to a big content company. And if you made music, movies or software, you had to get it duplicated and distributed and advertised and played on the radio and reviewed in magazines, and pretty much all of this was expensive, restricted to content-company cartels, or both.

Today, Internet distribution of software and music has already bypassed the big names adequately for the purposes of many small creators. Lots of hobby coders and musicians and other people give away their work, or sell it DRM-free, on the Internet. And small-to-medium artist collectives and distribution services like CDBaby or Show Me The Games are also popping up all over the place.

We are, however, still in an awkward middle stage at the moment. There are still things like big-budget TV shows that're made in the old ad-supported way but, more and more, they're viewed by people who never see any of the ads. The ad business is all about sweeping inconvenient facts like this under the carpet (Remember, kids: The only thing that ad agencies are really interested in selling is their own services!), but sooner or later the coyote will look down and the long drop will commence.

According to the content companies, the collapse of their current way of doing business will result in the sun turning black and widespread cannibalism. I'm fairly sure that the worst that'll actually happen is that sitcom actors of unremarkable talent will never again be paid more than the average annual wage per 22 minutes of screen time.

At about this point, if I were writing for a mainstream magazine, I'd have to talk about "disintermediation" and other words from the first issue of Wired, to explain how creators of music, computer games, and soon enough also TV and movies, can distribute their works directly to and receive money directly from people who like their stuff. I think readers of Atomic and this site probably know this already, though, so I'll get straight to the one big argument against the coming, content-company-free Utopia:

"People are bastards."

Human nature, goes this argument, means that if you give your music or book or whatever away for free, or sell un-copy-protected games, you'll make about as much money as a busker at an unpopular train station. What people can take for free, they will.

OK, maybe it's possible that you'll do well, like the handful of webcomic artists who've managed to quit their day job. But thinking you're going to be the next Penny Arcade is like thinking you're going to be the next Madonna. Even if you're very talented, fame is a crapshoot, and without fame you will fail.

(Goes the argument.)

I don't think this is the case, though.

Sure, lots of people will, and do, take stuff for free when they can. But on the Internet, giving away free copies costs as close to zero as makes no difference. (Note the contrast with the anti-piracy groups who insist that every time someone pirates Photoshop, Adobe loses $US500.)

Even if only a small fraction of a decent-sized user base coughs up a few bucks per head, an artist can make a living. And it keeps getting easier for people to get hold of that artist's work, and easier for them to pay for it, and harder for the faltering content corporations to stop them.

This sort of arrangement does quite solidly rule out making zillions of dollars from your art.

But, one, the proportion of artists who make vast amount of money today already closely approaches zero; even among today's "successful" artists, many don't actually see much of the money their content-company collects from their work.

And, two, the notion of "stardom" as a source of great wealth is a strange modern invention. It grew out of the discovery of ways to mass-produce copies of artworks before anybody discovered a way for the public to be able to see the products of most artists. In this awkward transitional stage of the world artistic market, it's becoming possible for people to sample a far wider range of kinds of art, while the content companies continue to throw their immense promotional power behind the few artists they consider to be most marketable.

Today's super-wealthy pop stars and blockbuster actors are an anomaly, the product of the explosion of the art market's value without an even slightly proportional increase in the number of artists able to fairly participate in that market. The natural state of the artist through history has always been one of penury; even the greatest historical composers and sculptors and painters generally had to suck up to wealthy patrons if they wanted to pay the bills. The Internet-distribution revolution would threaten to drop artists back down into that state, if not for the fact that the masses, in most countries, are now so much wealthier than they were in Beethoven's day.

You don't have to be a crazy idealist to believe that this'll work out. All you have to do is look around, particularly on the Internet. You'll see that people are basically... civilised.

We work together. We make great things. Even when it's easy to be a griefer, almost nobody is. Online stores selling un-DRMed music and games are successful.

And then there's Wikipedia, to name just the largest great thing on the Internet that people made without even expecting to get paid. Bizarrely obnoxious people are, if anything, more likely to worm their way into administrative positions in Wikipedia than they are in "real-world" institutions where you can't conceal your identity, create sock puppets or Photoshop out your White Power facial tattoos. The backstage drama is never-ending. And yet Wikipedia continues to work, overall, wonderfully well.

According to many politicians and their affiliated newspapers, the world teems with muggers, terrorists, and sundry other sociopaths.

If even a few per cent of humanity were actually like that, though, we'd never have achieved civilisation in the first place. Yes, some people are dicks, but most of the time, most aren't.

Samuel Johnson's refutation of the claim that material reality is an illusion was kicking a stone.

My refutation of the basic bastardry of humanity?

Wikipedia.

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