Um. It’s mawkish. It’s incoherent. It’s naive. It’s problematic. It’s also the closest thing I’ve got at the moment to a clear explication of the things I know to be true about intellectual property, but can’t seem to articulate with any real success to anyone else. Sigh. So I’ll put it up, for now. I might get around to using it as the skeleton for a massive rewrite and revision, but don’t hold your breath.
Yes—it’s also quite dated. Already.
Here’s the original Usenet debate to which it was posted, if you’d like to see it in its original context, and how badly I did. I’ve lightly edited this version for (somewhat) more clarity, and for html.
Ooh. Do I hear a gauntlet being dropped?
This is ever so much more fun than dithering about what “causes” homosexuality. (Best joke I had in that aborted post: “Homophobia: Nature or Nurture?”) I’m going to give this a shot, even though my copy of The Gift is back at the library. (Some other yahoo wanted to read it. Feh.) Why not?
Let’s clear the decks, though, and run this up the flagpole right off the bat: if there’s one thing the internet has shown us, it’s that you can’t own an idea. It’s impossible. And intellectual property is, basically, the commodification of ideas.
If you can’t own them, then what the hell good is it?
I’m (for once) not talking about utopia. I’m not talking about pie-in- the-sky wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if. I’m talking about hard, economic realities; I’m talking about the Evil that is Microsoft; I’m talking about the Reinvention of Content; I’m talking like some jackass who’s spent way too much time reading about open source this and cathedral vs. bazaar that and freedom of information the other. But in the end, I’m talking about computers, and what they’ve done.
A parallel has been drawn between intellectual property and the rights and restrictions which come along with renting a home, as opposed to owning it. Tenants, it is said, can’t paint the walls of their house because they don’t “own” the right to do so. It’s not until you purchase a home that you purchase that right. Therefore, the right is akin to property.
Tenants can’t paint the walls of their house because the landlord will evict them if they do. The landlord, with the backing of the law and the courts, controls access to the house. To assure access to the house, the tenant enters into an agreement with the landlord. If the tenant breaks his end of the agreement, the landlord is then free to break hers, and vice versa. These rights, or mineral rights, or easements, or whatever, have been spoken of as intellectual property. They aren’t. They’re all questions of access, and the control of that access, and who is recognized by the law and the courts and the marketplace as having that control. These are very tangible, demonstrable things. If I want to rent an apartment, I have to deal with those people who have apartments to rent; apartments are a finite commodity. I can’t just copy an apartment and copy some land to put it on whenever I want. When I purchase a house, I have to deal with those institutions that are willing and able to lend me money to do so, and abide by the restrictions imposed by the agreement we both enter into. I can’t just copy the money. I can’t just walk up to a friend and say, hey, here’s a Zip disk, could you download me a nice 2-bedroom on the sunny side of the street?
Intellectual property—words, images, stories, music, software, information—is indeed mystical, ineffable, intangible. The computer is enabling us for the first time to separate it from the physical objects that have encased and encoded it for so long, and controlled our access to it—or rather, the computer is returning us to the time when images, words, stories, music, information just was, in the brain, humming in the air between two people.
Think I’m getting mystical? Touch a story. No, not the book, dummy. Not the text file. Not the paper printout. Touch the story. Touch this essay. Sell me the effect it had on your thinking when you read it. Hand me a big stinkin’ pile of Adobe Photoshop without a medium in which to carry it. Grab hold of a song as it flits through the air—and try to prevent me from hearing it, too.
Why else do you think software boxes are so damn big? To hold the manual? That’s online, these days. There’s air, there’s filler, there’s pretty pictures and bad copywriting, and somewhere at the bottom there’s a jewel case. Which—once you’ve loaded the program onto your machine—you chuck under your desk to gather dust and rarely, if ever, look at again. What, exactly, did you just buy?
I stole that image, by the way, hook, line, and sinker, from Neal Stephenson. Think he should call the cops?
Libertarians, as currently constituted within the American political landscape, tend to piss me off. They lack the courage of their convictions; scratch a libertarian anywhere near her sense of, oh, property, say, and suddenly she loves laws. Adores rules and regulations.
A libertarian: someone who says, “Get rid of all the laws. Except the ones I like.” Rather like those free-market-or-die global financiers—who go running to the government, or the IMF, or the World Bank, as soon as it looks like the crooked government that sold the bond might default.
I mean—we’ve got a fantastic new model for dealing with “intellectual property” that ensures freedom and liberty for all, guarantees open access, and best of all, doesn’t require a lick of government support (aside, of course, from the massive amounts of research and development subsidised by those governments which went into setting up the internet), doesn’t write a single new page of rules and regulations, and doesn’t keep an army of lawyers in Armani and Hugo Boss. You’d think they’d be all over it.
(Well. Actually. Quite a few are.)
It’s open source, and it involves the voluntary abrogation of “intellectual property rights.” The clear-headed recognition that the net has changed things, so rather than moaning about it and trying desperately to cram the genie back into the bottle, you just shrug and set about finding new ways to make the new paradigm work for you.
(Really, it’s quite touching. So many libertarians are so concerned that copyright lawyers and entertainment industry leeches and software middle-managers will be put out of work to go hungry in the streets that they’re willing to give over a vast assortment of their own rights and responsibilities to keep these flacks in jobs and paperwork.)
Let’s first of all take a look at how it’s working in the real world so far. Those of you familiar with the concept can skip ahead; anyone who’d like to read more than my own mad ravings, I’d highly recommend the touchstone essay on the subject, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” by Eric Raymond, crypto-libertarian and High Priest of Open Source; I’d also recommend “In the Beginning Was the Command Line,” a rambling, more general take on the topic by Neal Stephenson, with his usual wit and peripatetic, off-kilter insight.
Anyone up for some Microsoft bashing? How many of you were hit with Melissa? The Love Bug? That slow-burning one that bopped about a couple of weeks ago? All of these take advantage of a big hole in the security of Microsoft Outlook, in the way it handles attachments to email messages. Microsoft has known about this hole for a couple of years now, since incensed IT folks have been bitching about it for at least that long. That they haven’t fixed it is one more sign that Microsoft has an effective monopoly, and an object lesson in the dangers of same.
Microsoft, of course, controls the ultimate access to its software. The source code is proprietary, and kept locked away and hidden. Without access to that source code, it’s impossible to hack into the program in any effective way—say, to fix that hole in Outlook. Or kill that goddamn fucking paperclip once and for freaking all.
If, on the other hand, in some bizarro alternate world where Microsoft decided, heck, let’s open source—well. The hackable stuff of Outlook would be released. As soon as a flaw in its security system became known that allows a loser in Florida to pay homage to some stripper who slept with him once by shutting down email systems around the world, well. The hackers could try various solutions and post their results on the internet. That solution which worked the best and was the least crufty (and I do love that word) would rapidly become obvious, and be rapidly disseminated. (Oh, there’d be factionalism, and people rallying to one or the other solution, but that’s minor, really.) There never would have been a Love Bug after Melissa. Or anything else that took advantage of that hole.
That’s how it benefits the customer. How does it benefit Microsoft? (Aside from no longer being known as monolithic purveyors of shoddy products.)
Well. Instead of hiring a bunch of software engineers at unbelievably exorbitant salaries and working them at all hours of the day and night to try and push out a new version of Windows every couple of years, testing and retesting, coding and recoding to try and catch every single conceivable bug and failing—how about getting thousands of engineers to work on any problem at all in the software, that’s released as often as every couple of days (or every day), that’s far more powerful, stable, effective, and up-to-date—all for free? Or, to be fair, at the relatively microscopic expense of setting up and maintaining an internet posting board?
Of course, that would mean giving up control. Giving up the myth of intellectual property. Being unable to “brand” effectively. Ceasing to be Microsoft.
I’m not going to argue its effectiveness. I’m not going to debate whether or not this works, or whether or not it’s viable. If you think it’s full of hot air, fine; you’re arguing with an economic system that’s thirty years old and growing faster and stronger and more powerful and robust every day, that you use, constantly, as naturally as breathing, that’s the very backbone of the communications system that brought you this piece of writing you’re reading now. Go argue with that. I’ve got bigger and far more difficult fish to fry.
I mean, if it works for software, why shouldn’t it work for everything else?
Art is a gift.
There is no other sane way to conceptualize art. It is a gift. It is not a commodity; it is not a resource; it is not an effort measurable in man-hours or foot-pounds. It comes from where we know not, and when it’s least expected. It is given freely, or not at all.
All of us here understand that, to a basic extent. If only unconsciously. We all participate in a gift economy on ASSM and ASSD. You get out of it what you put into it. You toss bread upon the waters because sooner or later that bread comes back to you. You put hours of effort into a story not to get paid, but because the gift of art has visited you, and it’s time to pass that gift on. (“And in the end, the love you make—” But really. When you start quoting the Beatles to support your economic rhetoric...)
Because art is a gift, it cannot be bought or sold. Access to it can be. The physical object which carries it or encodes it can be. But when you can no longer assure control of that access—when the code or carrier, say, is no longer a physical object, finite, irreproducible, or difficult to reproduce, well.
All you have left is the art.
We post our stories on ASSM with the typical Berne Agreement on copyright, etc. appended automatically by the fine folks who moderate the board. (I must one of these days get around to crafting a broad boilerplate renunciation of those rights, so my stuff walks my talk.) We don’t care if people copy it to other archives, download it to their hard drives, print it out and share it with their friends. We have freely abrogated that copyright; we’ve opened our source.
—A quick aside, and handy flamebait, to boot: I’ve never understood the vehemence with which people attack pay sites that “steal” their stories. You aren’t losing anything—that’s not money you otherwise would see, for God’s sake. The site in question almost certainly isn’t making money or getting clicks solely from the presence of your story; it’s just there as filler, content skimmed at random from a story newsgroup to fill some space. And while you can argue about the questionable ethics of most pay porn sites, let’s pretend this one is above-board—with the exception of its bad habit of skimming said stories; it doesn’t slam credit cards, say. Are their customers still being hurt? Well, yes, to a certain extent; they’re paying for something that’s available for free. But they’ll soon learn what chumps they’ve been, and stop. I mean, hell, you don’t even have to know how to access Usenet anymore. Just go to a search engine and enter your particulars, and smut galore!
(Then again, we do live in a world in which all this information is at our fingertips, free, a Google visit away, and still folks jump feet first into an argument on the causes of homosexuality without first going to skim the latest reading on, say, queer animals, homosexuality as a viable survival behavior, sexual diversity’s importance to biodiversity, how lesbian seagulls make better parents, the gay gene complex, the research that says it might exist, the research that failed to validate it, and why it is highly influenced by environment and behavior even if it does exist, like any other gene or gene complex. Maybe they wanted to avoid all the weird homophobic religious sites—which are more fixated on anal sex than anything I’ve ever seen, with the possible exception of Dr. Bob’s Butt Bongo Safe Sex Circus. Definite fuel for the taboo argument, there—c.f. Mircea Eliade and the profound connection between the sacred and profane, where all the really important stuff happens. Shit and death and ecstasy...)
But I wasn’t going to open that can of worms. Better to say this: we live in a world where a simple search reveals any number of American stores that sell the first four videos of the anime series Utena for a set price of around US$90, and still people go on Ebay and bid them up to US$100, US$120. No system of economics is ever going to protect us from our foolishness entirely. Yes, it’s a bad thing when “pay” stories offer your hard-won free stories as a service chumps pay for. Yes, we hate them and all their ilk. All right-thinking people do. But. You haven’t been harmed. You haven’t lost money you otherwise would have made. The only damage that’s been done to you is the time and effort it took to document the theft and dash off a nasty letter to the violator’s ISP, which was most likely ignored, or, if it did result in getting the violator kicked off, well, it didn’t stop him from calling up the next ISP in the Yellow Pages. Why bother? Fight fights that matter. More readers are, in the end, more readers; in a gift economy, that’s of the good.
“Aha!” cries the smart cookie in the back. “You forgot about plagiarism, sir!”
Actually, I just hadn’t got around to it.
What about it?
Let’s posit a worst-case scenario for me, here.
Let’s say I’ve got an enemy out there. A doppelganger. He’s jealous of my success (what success?). He’s envious of my fame and fortune (I would be, too, if I could find it). He goes to my archives, grabs my stuff, rips my name and contact info off and puts his in. He’s even smart enough to change character names, maybe even uses his word processor to change Jessie’s (now Julie’s) hair from blond to brown. And he starts posting it.
And he falls flat on his face.
I am a known quantity, now. You know a Nicholas Urfé story when you see it. You know Bronwen’s stuff. You know Katie’s. If some bounder came in here trying to peddle “his” Cheerleader Call Girls, he’d have his ass handed to him. If he tried to stick his stuff on less protective newsgroups, or backwater web archives, well, he might get away with it, for a while. But he’d be reaching a much smaller audience—and an audience that, as it grew more net savvy, would learn the truth.
The art is a gift, freely given; he can’t steal that.
There is no income stream associated with the distribution of the art on the net, so he can’t steal that.
By the very virtue of the open source nature of my work—because it is freely available, to be copied or archived anywhere at all—my identity is known; is secure and protected. He can’t steal that, either.
And even if he did manage to cause some doubt—even if the community took him seriously, that maybe I stole his notes or something and typed them into the computer and passed them off as mine and only now did he get online to see, say—well, the crunch time would come when the next chapter appears. Could he write another chapter without the benefit of plagiarism? I know I can. The only risk in letting him try, of course, would be that he could do it better...
What was that you were saying about plagiarism?
Of course, there’s one way he can hurt me. He can download my stuff, take it to a physical book publisher, claim it as his, and turn it into a bound paper novel that gets sold in bookstores.
“Aha!” cries the smart cookie. “Where are you now, with your no intellectual property? Looking pretty foolish, aren’t you!”
No. I could sue his ass into the ground.
“But!” cries the smart cookie.
Look. Go back to where we were talking about access, and controlling that access. He didn’t steal my art; he stole an income stream which the law allows me to control—and more importantly, that it is actually possible and conceivable for me to control. —Except, of course, for the nasty little fact that I’ve freely abrogated even those rights. I’m not expecting you to, and I want you to understand that you can embrace these concepts without giving up the income associated with older forms of distribution, if you don’t mind a little self-contradiction. (A necessary thing whenever two systems intersect.) Me, I want to go balls to the wall, baby. When I commit, I commit.
Steal my stuff. Heck, try to write your own versions of a Nicholas Urfé piece. That was where some of the best music came from in the 18th century, after all, Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and everybody else riffing on each other’s ideas. Nowadays, they’d have to pay some company A&R man for the privilege. The music’s the poorer for it; suits are richer.
Not for long, of course.
I’m probably going to skip the lesson on the entertainment industry as it stands, and why “intellectual property” is a convenient idea when you’re dealing with a mass distribution system that is so damn clumsy and has to deal with art-as-commodity, a nasty, prickly, cantankerous, whimsically irreconcilable beast. Maybe I’ll save it for responses; it’s great stuff to get all fired up over. If you’d like an impassioned take on the subject, read this great manifesto by (of all people) Courtney Love; I don’t know about you, but even though I’ve never bought a Hole album before, I’ll be first in line to buy her next one. For a more fun, optimistic, and downright empowering look at it, read Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud (and it’s about one fuck of a lot more than comics, just like Love’s piece is about more than just the music “industry”), or visit his website. Realize that neither of these two folks is talking about open source, or the impossibility of owning an idea; both are talking about the inequities of the current system, how it came to be, why what the artist wants to create and what the audience wants to experience really don’t matter all that much to the current system of mass distribution, and why Napster was a bad idea—but not at all because of what it did, which was a very, very good thing. For the purposes of this discussion, it will help you to focus on where and how the various income streams associated with “selling” art come from and go to, and it will help you to dissociate the art itself from the thing that carries it, and whatever limitations that thing may bring to the equation.
Someone recently asked why the porn here on ASSM was so much better than the porn available in commercial collections. It’s really a no-brainer. There’s so much more of it, so you’re much more likely to find stuff to your taste. It’s been accumulating for almost fifteen years now, in some cases, in one way or another; the sheer bulk of it means that, even if the percentage of quality stuff is microscopic, there’s still a lot of quality stuff out there. It’s freely given, written by people who honestly wanted to say what they said, in a community that supports good work and tries to help improve everyone’s skills—since everyone benefits, the more good work there is.
Pit that against $5.95 for a 120 pg. paperback cranked out by a hack to publishing company marketing specs? Sheesh. The only porn I buy these days is really old stuff, classics not yet on the web. Songs of Bilitis. Dialogues of Luisa Sigea. That sort of thing.
You remember that link up there, to the Neal Stephenson essay? “In The Beginning Was the Command Line”? You can also buy it as a trade paperback. $10.95.
Why on earth would you?
The $64,000 question, then, is, quite literally, the $64,000 question.
“How do I make money if I don’t own my ideas, Mr. Urfé?”
Well, gosh. I can think of dozens of ways, myself. Maybe I’ll list a few.
1. Pass the hat. Why not? Works for buskers. You’re a musician, you distribute your stuff for free, you have a website people can go to to download MP3s. You ask for folks to send you donations. (Shareware, anyone?) Another example? Go take a look at Bruno. Baldwin distributes his comics freely over the web—there’s even HTML code so you can have the daily installment appear on your homepage, if you like. He sells some merchandise and book collections (physical objects, not the art itself). And he asks for people to sign on as “patrons”; six dollars a pop gets you listed in the next printing as a Bruno patron.
(I just know somebody’s going to bring up “How can you merchandise if you don’t own your ideas and anybody can steal your stuff?”)
2. Control the access to your ideas: Yes, you can still erect a market barrier. Goes something like this—let’s say I finish the last chapter of The James Sisters, and announce that I’ll publish it—as soon as I get $5000. Doesn’t matter who sends it, or how much they send; it could be one person carrying the whole load, or a thousand people at $5 a pop, or any amount at all. As soon as I get the $5000, it goes up for free.
Probably wouldn’t work too well, here. It violates the spirit of the community, for one thing. But let’s say you’re a middlin’ famous genre writer—you have a following, but you don’t command top-shelf respect. Offer up your next novel this way and see what happens. There’s a couple of sci-fi web imprints giving this a shot. Some friends of mine are trying it with role-playing game supplements. My wife’s going to market her comics under a system that combines this and—
3. Micropayments. You can’t control the spread of your ideas through market forces, true. But if you charge a tiny amount of money—say, fifty cents to download a .pdf of your latest comic book—well. Sure, other people can copy it and spread it around for free. But it’s going to be almost as easy just to go to your site and pay the damn fifty cents and salve your conscience by supporting the artist. You’re counting on people’s better nature, but you won’t feel too badly when you get ripped off. Which will happen, no matter what you charge.
4. Hone your skills. I learned more about website design and wysiwyg web editors putting together my asstr.org website than I ever would have taking a class. My art gave me a clear goal, and I worked until I achieved that goal. And now I have another salable skill to add to my freelance portfolio. (Not that I want to use that site itself as an example in my portfolio; sigh.) My writing and editing? Like any other tool, it gets sharper with use. The time I spend writing stuff “for free” is still valuable time.
And if you can string enough words together to hang a story out that people will read and like, you’ve got a salable skill. There will always be folks that need something said and don’t have the skills to say it the way they want. Copywriting. Commercial design. Copyediting and proofreading. Technical writing. A bunch of us already do this, of course; we’re making money off what we’ve learned from our art.
5. Cash in on your reputation. If you develop one, then your word, your name, your presence become valuable assets. (No, they aren’t intangible things you own. It’s access that you control. Or you abrogate that control to an agent, or a manager. If you let your personal assistant make all your appointments, does he now “own” your presence?) Granted, you’ll want to do this with style and taste, to avoid damaging the very things you hope will help make you money; no Battlefield Earth for you. (Though Travolta was hardly selling out, to be fair. He was genuinely trying to pay homage to, well, a lousy hack pulp writer. With a lousy, hack, pulp movie. Makes a certain amount of sense, don’t it.) Go see, for instance, what Douglas Adams did to create the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the real world: an open-source travel guide on anything, anything at all, sprung up because of the impact of his name, and the idea he had. He and his programmers, of course, control access to the advertising space at the top of the webpage. He’s not selling his idea. He’s not selling the information freely gathered by all and sundry. But he can sell that ad space, the access to which he controls, which a lot of eyeballs come to see when they’re looking for very specific things.
[Ed. note: in the wake of Adams’s death, it appears the h2g2.com website has now become a part of the BBC. The basic idea appears to be intact, however.]
We can argue about the ethics of ads (and the effectiveness of clicking through) later. This is yet another way to make money without selling your ideas.
Which you don’t own, anyway.
Because no one does.
Because they’re all free.
Because art is a gift.
Will you ever get filthy stinking Stephen King rich by giving away your art and trying to make money in some other fashion?
Then again, very, very few people get filthy stinking Stephen King rich under the current system. In fact, quite a few never make much of anything at all. Know anybody in a band? Ask them about the mathematics of record contracts. Know a writer? Ask her about her last royalty check, and break it down into an hourly rate, and compare it with the national minimum wage.
None of us makes art for the money. If we did, we wouldn’t be giving it away here. We make art because we have to. It’s nice, to get money for doing it in some fashion; that’s money we don’t have to make other ways, which frees up time we can use to make more art. It’s nice, as Virginia Woolf noted, to have a room of your own; even better to have a stipend.
From where I sit, the math is simple, ineluctable, and breathlessly exciting. By giving up on the idea of intellectual property, by freely distributing one’s art, by giving it away as a gift, by fully leaping into a gift economy, more people will be able to make more art and show it to more people and more than ever before will be able to make at least some money off it. Sure, it’ll depend on your skill, your technique, your ability to get your stuff noticed, your ingenuity in establishing and maintaining an “income stream”; nothing’s guaranteed, in this life or any other. And very, very, very few will ever get filthy stinking Stephen King rich.
Hell. That’s a price I’m willing to pay.
Uther Pendragon said (this started out as a response to a post by Uther):
Within this pattern, it looks more ridiculous than ever to claim that the purchase (or borrowing, or stealing) of a book inescapably, if inexplicably, carries with it the right to reprint that book.
Well, duh. But come on. What the hell does this have to do with intellectual property?
The mechanics of producing and distributing physical books in large numbers requires a pool of capital. An investment. You have to have trucks. Printing presses. Access to stores. Shelf space. All of these things are limited, finite commodities, and controlling them and the access to them is important. To protect their investment, publishers, distributors, retailers all insist on a copyright, to prevent other people from muscling in and devaluing their investment. And artists, to play in this system, go along with it.
But as we’ve seen, artists can make money other ways. Publishers and music companies and retailers and distributors and multinational entertainment conglomerates owned by beverage distributors can’t. They’re committed to the idea of the art object, the physical commodity, the idea that can be bought and sold.
The internet, and computers, changes all of this. The ability to store and transfer complex ideas quickly, cheaply, across any distance at all wipes out the investment necessary to mass-distribute art under the old system. It frees art from the tyranny of the object, and the finite limitations the object places on it.
Uther claims that intellectual property ultimately doesn’t have mystical and ineffable distinction from other forms of property. (He also says “indescribable,” but I’ve been articulating it quite nicely, I think, if at some length.) Again, nonsense. Show me another form of property whereby “selling” it results not in the transfer of the property from one person to another, but in the sudden creation of a duplicate of that property. When I write a story and then give it away, I don’t lose the story. I still have it. And so does the reader. That’s radically different from every other form of property exchange under our current system of economics.
Certainly, one can “sell” rights associated with art. If one can control access to the idea, one can sell that access to other people. That’s what happens when you publish something under the current rules. That’s what happens when you buy a book at a bookstore. That’s why you can’t just copy it and hand it out yourself. You’re participating in an agreement, just like the tenant and the landlord. If you violate that agreement, you’ll pay the price. (You haven’t bought the idea, for Christ’s sake. When you buy a CD, you quite literally haven’t bought the music on it; you’ve merely purchased the means whereby you can have access to it—and believe me, the record companies are doing their damndest to limit even that.)
But the computer, and its ability to store thrillingly complex ideas, and the internet, and its ability to transfer those ideas anywhere at all—all at little to no cost beyond the initial start-up necessary to purchase a computer and access to the net—these are pretty much rendering the control of access to art a moot point. Because it’s so damn cheap, you can’t depend on market forces alone to control it. There’s no way to corner the market, no way to create an artificial scarcity; every demand can almost instantaneously and freely create its own supply. The net, as they say, treats censorship as damage, and routes around it. Attempting to impose control on an idea that’s already out there is censorship.
The only other way to control the access to art is through laws and regulations. The courts. Which work well for a great many things, but—controlling access to art? Information? Regulate it?
People. Stop. Think.
You really want to go down that route?
Do you really think the DMCA is a good idea? Or anything but the tip of the coming Ice Age?
I’m willing to bungee jump off this bridge. But hey, maybe you aren’t. That’s cool. I’m not going to pretend this isn’t a revolutionary idea; that its implementation, in even a limited sense, won’t result in a radically different world from the one we live in now. (Of course, it’s also a far saner model of how we intuitively respond to art, and traffic in ideas; it’s what we already do without thinking. Any wonder that copyright and trademark law is far and away the most schizophrenic and problematic branch of our legal system?)
Just think. If you define your art, your ideas, as property, and play by those rules, you commodify them. You turn them into something that can be taken away. Ask Shuster and Siegel. Ask anybody in a band that’s ever had the whiff of a major label deal. Ask Joss Whedon, at the end of the day, who really owns Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We’ve had to play by these rules because that’s the mass distribution system was set up; it’s the compromise we made to get our work in front of a wider audience than we could manage on our own.
The internet changes all that. We don’t have to play by those rules anymore.
If you treat art as a gift, if you give it away, if you don’t turn it into property, if you don’t waste time and effort trying to control access when you can’t control it—then no one can take it away from you. It’s yours. Forever. And you can concentrate on those things whose access you do control. Your own skill. The potential you have to create more art. Your name and reputation.
These are finite qualities. These are irreproducible things. These are commodities you can control, and make money from.
Art, itself, isn’t. Ideas aren’t. Period.
And you can take that to the bank.