What would Picasso’s hourly rate be?: Art & Copyright on the Internet

tpb_awkThe new documentary Pirate Bay: Away from the Keyboard is out, telling the story of the three founders of the largest file sharing software in the world as they defend the legality of their role in the sharing of copyrighted information, predominately movies and music. A clear division exists between the defendants, three Swedish computer nerds interested in technical challenges and the open internet, and the plaintiffs, Hollywood and the music industry with its vested corporate interest in traditional methods of pricing and distribution. The defendants claim that Pirate Bay is just a vehicle for sharing information, and that they are not responsible for what any of their thousands of users choose to share. The plaintiffs allege that Pirate Bay actively enables the sharing of copyrighted information, and also profits from it (that is, rather than promoting the free exchange of information they are profiting from it in exactly the same capitalist way that Hollywood et al. does). After an initial loss and lengthy appeals, the founders of Pirate Bay were found guilty and sentenced to jail time—which is happening now.

This case is illustrative of the battle between the vested corporate interests in information and culture production and all the capitalist money-making behind it, and the open, flexible, low-cost alternatives made available by the internet and its ethos of free and open access to information. How the internet is handled—how and to what extent restrictions are placed on it, whether it will be allowed to function as a free and open conduit of information—is one of the central issues of our time, one that will determine the lives of many across the globe, who will either be included into a network of information that can benefit them or who will be excluded and will suffer from that lack of knowledge.

What does this have to do with Picasso? The alternatives offered by the internet are exciting, revolutionary even, in terms of arts and culture. To treat art (by art I am thinking of traditional visual arts, but also movies be they Hollywood blockbusters or experimental art films, music, etc.) as a commodity is standard today. Thus we have the art market, cinemas, expensive DVDs and CDs, an iTunes-mediated music purchasing system. But there is a huge discrepancy between the art market and the art. The value of a Picasso is apparently in the millions, but really this is an arbitrary number. It does not adequately represent the value of his work to our cultural life, nor can its costs of production be calculated the way we calculate the cost of a washing machine. What would Picasso’s hourly rate have been? The questions seem ridiculous. It does not make sense to us that Picasso would have sat at his stool and timed himself while he painted, and then charged an hourly rate for the product. To treat art as a commodity is to stuff a square peg into a round hole; it just doesn’t fit.

A corollary problem of treating art as a commodity is that it turns art into property that can be owned. Just as the art market exists, so too does art ownership. There is nothing inherently wrong in this, but it is an imperfect systems that does not adequately represent the value of art. And we see the cracks in this system all the time. On one hand, collectors buy and own art. Yet we also spend a substantial part of public money and private donations on funding the arts in the public cultural sphere through museums. We talk about cultural heritage as something to be preserved and protected, often in national terms. So we also have a sense of the arts as a societal value and belonging to the public.

Of course, just because the value of art cannot be defined in monetary terms does not mean an artist shouldn’t be able to earn a living, or that what an artist creates is not of value. Quite the opposite. While the art market offers a way for artists to earn a living, it is an imperfect one, based on the buying and selling of objects in a time when art has generally moved away from the central importance of the art object. The mechanics of the art market and the idea of art as investment transfers objects of cultural value into the private sphere, where everyone does not have access to them. But the solution is perhaps not to defend the established modes of copyright, but to create new systems. This might also offer a solution to some of the problems of the art market, which pools its dollars very much on the top end of the market without fostering the growth of emerging artists or the stable development of careers.

How does the internet offer anything exciting or revolutionary to solve these problems? It offers alternative modes of funding and distribution. In fact, there has been an emergence of many different ventures, created by individuals or small groups, that are able to survive because of the low barriers to entry and the active participation of individuals. For example, there are Kickstarter, Bandcamp, the now on-hiatus 20×200 and its subsequent, similar cohort of online fine art retailers. Just as people crowdsource information, through Kickstarter and Bandcamp artists and musicians can ‘crowdsource’ funds for projects. Many artists have successfully funded projects through Kickstarter, and many more have become their own internet business and PR teams, as artist websites become de rigueur and Facebook pages normal. Bandcamp is also notable because the money goes directly to the musicians, they control the pricing, and success is not manufactured by an industry machine with a huge advertising budget. Organizations like 20×200 offer the promise of affordable art to the masses.

The internet is an easy means to distribute your work outside of copyright and the traditional market. Flickr is populated by photographers who post their work with varying amounts of controls over how they can be used, often only requesting credit for the image if it used elsewhere. Radiohead released In Rainbows online, requesting donations in an amount that the user could determine, and it proved remarkably successful. Russian poet and activist Kirill Medvedev has renounced copyright on all his works, and now publishes on his website and Facebook.

Having alternative means of reaching and making, a third way between private and public money, seems incredibly promising. The concept of the internet is based on the idea of individual participation, a decentralized structure of connections, and an exchange of information without a monetary price on it. Yet when artists bring their ‘product’ directly to people through the medium of the internet, and ask for support in terms of a monetary contribution, despite assumptions of human selfishness especially in the supposed de-personalization of the internet, people choose to give. This sort of exchange, which is more marked by generosity and support and the creation of a direct connection to an individual or small organizations, seem to me to be more akin to the nature and value of art than our current system.

Similarly, my sympathies are very much with the pirates, the hackers, and the free and open source of information that the internet should be. Traditionally the hacker ethos behind the structure of the internet is not a destructive one, but a creative one—one that creates systems and facilitates the sharing of knowledge. This ethos finds a complement in academia, where scholarly results are published for the good of the community (and/or scholarly prestige/tenure, etc.) but not with expectations of high profits. Hackers are rarely destructive, except maybe of an ailing industry’s profits. I think the movie and music industry can hardly expect to stop the millions of people around the world who download music and movies by suing three men in Stockholm. They might more profitably investigate how to increase the value of DVDs with special features and alternate methods of pricing and distribution.

Sharing information online is not always illegal; the organization of non-copyright information shared over the internet has proved highly valuable. Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg are great examples of sites that contribute to human knowledge through the collaborative efforts of individuals across the world. (Did you know anybody could become a proofreader for Project Gutenberg? I just joined myself.) Most libraries and museums are dedicated to moving their collections into the online sphere. With the alternatives that the internet offers, the large, creaking corporate juggernaut of copyright could indeed be forced to adapt to how new cultural products are shared in a structure that might be less profitable for companies, but could enable a long tail of cultural producers to produce their artistic work through self-organized or small organizations.

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