The discussion between Mike Swinbourne and Peter Wilkin in response to my recent Conversation article on business models for the creative industry reminded me that the excessive profits alleged to be made by powerful industry players is the go-to argument for many critics of copyright. Yet the creative industries are hardly the only ones in which a small number of powerful figures are able to obtain much greater wealth than the average member of society, so are excessive profits in the creative industries really a result of copyright at all, or are they just the usual dynamic of the economic system that we have?
I decided to do some reading on this question, but struggled to find any actual study of this issue or a related one. Every now and again someone mentions the distribution of revenue obtained from the sale of a CD (G. Prem Premkumar's was the best I found) but no one seems to have compiled similar figures for on-line purchases, films or books. Nor does anyone appear to have investigated the overall distribution of revenue amongst artists, publishers, distributors and the rest, which is closer to what I wanted to know. Either my literature search skills have failed me, or I have a project for an economics student looking to become the Thomas Piketty of art.
Whether or not their profits are fair overall, large corporations are intimately involved in the creation and distribution of the art most discussed in debates over copyright and infringement. For all the vitriol directed at major record labels and movie studios, I can only recall one person (in a comment on The Conversation) professing that he'd rather do without their products. For all other critics of the creative industries, there's no question that Game of Thrones, Mad Max IV, The Lego Movie and the rest ought to be available, and it's hard to see how anyone but a large corporation or exceptionally wealthy individual could put together something that requires the many millions of dollars that go into creating such blockbusters.
Shana Ponelis and Johannes Britz, discussing the ethics of copyright infringement, point out that infringers can ease their consciences with the perception that the victims are giant corporations who no one professes to like and who can well afford the loss of one measly song or film. Any losses to the artists employed or contracted by these corporations are quietly ignored (as are the copyright users who do pay, covering the cost of creating the work that infringers take for nothing). But, in doing so, are infringement apologists forgetting who bought them the goodies at the centre of the debate?
I can't say I find giant corporations particularly lovable, either, and I try to favour small businesses in my neighbourhood as much as possible for things like groceries, services and entertainment. But I have to concede that giant corporations have their uses — for a start, how many of our digital entertainment devices were lovingly crafted in the rustic workshop of an independent electronics artisan? Until someone gets around to examining the distribution of wealth in the creative industries, however, it's hard to say how they might be best used and rewarded.
When I touched upon bring-your-own-device schemes in an article about upgrading devices last month, my inner industrial relations consultant was a little troubled by the whole idea of bring-your-own-device: why would I provide equipment for my employer's use at my own expense? I then read Brian M. Gaff's column BYOD? OMG! in the February 2015 issue of IEEE Computer (pp. 10-11), in which he provides some advice for employers in managing devices brought into the workplace by employees.
In doing so, Gaff sometimes makes said employees sound very much indeed like suckers providing free equipment to their employers and donating time outside of work hours: BYOD transfers costs from employers to employees, and increases productivity (per dollar, if not per time) by allowing employees to work at home. Reading that "personally owned devices are typically more advanced compared to those that are employer issued" (p. 10), I further envisaged a workplace version of John Kenneth Galbraith's "private opulence and public squalor" in which BYOD participants flaunt their cool new devices while the workplace's own infrastructure is left to rot.
To be fair, there are benefits in it for employees as well. They get to use devices set up to their own specifications, and there's some convenience in not having to switch between personal devices and work ones. I myself frequently answer work e-mail from my home computer (though that says as much about the casual nature of my employment as anything to do with which computer I like to use.) Maybe one could even make an environmental case for the practice insofar as it reduces the number of devices that need to be built (though the perpetual upgrade cycle that feeds BYOD enthusiasm may have exactly the opposite effect.)
Apparently pretty much everyone thinks this is all more than fair, because a quick search for "bring your own device" on both Google and Bing fails to bring up anyone complaining about employers transferring costs to employees. Indeed, if Gaff, Google and Bing are to be believed, employers can barely stop employees from bringing their beloved devices to work.
Still, it's not clear to me whether BYOD enthusiasts have consciously rejected any concern over who pays for work to be done, or if they have in fact forgotten to ask the question in their rush to use a favourite device. Even I wouldn't reject BYOD outright over the concern I've noted above — but I would want to be sure that I'm not just providing technology procurement services as a free add-on to my normal duties.
The Conversaton published my quick overview of business models for the creative industries in the latter weeks of February. I shortly had to laugh at Peter Wilkin's sarcastic suggestion that ads be embedded into songs in response to a copyright-is-futile comment from Mike Swinbourne. Wilkin's tongue-in-cheek hope is that we'll get so sick of the results that we'll go back to paying for music.
I've previously written about the way that the need for advertising money drives data collection machinery like that of Google and Facebook. Wilkin's suggestion at least has the virtue that music listeners would be forced to confront the results of their unwillingness to pay.
Advertising has historically been very successful in raising funds for free-to-air radio and television, print news and search engines, but I'm hard-pressed to think of anyone praising it for its support of great art. At best, people accept it as a necessary evil to be endured in return for regular entertainment. (I presume that marketers themselves have more positive opinions but I don't read the publications in which they offer their views.)
Perhaps those who suggest advertising as the solution for raising funds ought to make the case for its greatness, if this is what they really believe. The apparent lack of any such case leaves me wondering if they really appreciate advertising's contribution, or if they're just being seduced by apparently-free content.
Having had a life-long hatred of advertising, I decided some time ago to make a point of taking the paid version rather than the ad-supported version whenever the former was available. So I pay for someone to host this web site and my e-mail accounts, I pay subscriptions to web sites that I read regularly, and I pay for shareware that I find useful.
This policy has its limits, particularly when it comes to sites or applications that I use only casually. Without an efficient infrastructure and user interface for making small electronic payments, it's difficult for creators to offer paid-for access to small items at a reasonable cost. Perhaps here I'd concede the value of advertising, if only because twenty-odd years of work on "micro-payments" has amounted to more or less nothing.
I wonder if those who support advertising as a solution more generally would be prepared to acknowledge a similar policy. Would anyone commit to a policy of not fast-forwarding through ads on video, not installing pop-up blockers, and not subverting data collection machinery by entering fake data? And is anyone (who is not themselves a marketer) prepared to write an ode to the wonders that advertising has brought us?