The Digital Copying Glass is Half Full

It’s common, in jeremiads against filesharing and free culture “communism,” to earn some populist cred by sympathizing with the little guy.  Sure, they say, big artists with name recognition can make money from “Freemium” (i.e., using free content to promote the sale of paid auxilliary goods).  But the little guy can’t do that.

I’m more than a little skeptical of such claims.  I’m more inclined to credit Cory Doctorow, who says that for the little guy, obscurity is a lot bigger danger than “piracy.”  I suspect a lot of them are pretty unimaginative when it comes to thinking of alternative ways to monetize their products.

All they’re thinking of is the stuff the record companies can’t charge money for to pay them.  They’re not thinking of the new possibilities opened up by all the things they can now do for themselves, at virtually zero cost, that formerly only a highly capitalized record company could do for them.  Their entire view of the world is still shaped by a time when producing and selling records required capital assets costing many millions of dollars, and the way to make money from music was to convince some such giant company that your work was worth producing and marketing.

What’s more, even assuming that filesharing really does cut into the total revenues of the little guy who’s trying to make a full-time career out of music, that’s looking at only one side of the picture.  It neglects what Bastiat called “the unseen.”

Let’s move from music to writing and consider my case.  I  don’t waste time pissing and moaning about the sharing of pdf files of my books at torrent sites, or how much money it’s costing me.  To me, the proper basis for comparison is the money I still can make that I never could have made at all in the “good old days.”  In the good old days, I’d have painstakingly put together a manuscript of hundreds of pages, and then put it away to gather cobwebs when I couldn’t persuade the gatekeepers at a conventional publisher that it was worth marketing.  Never mind whether online file-sharing’s costing me money (I don’t think it is–I believe the ebooks are more like free advertising).  More importantly, if it weren’t for digital publishing technologies and free publishing venues on the Internet, I would probably have lived and died doing menial labor with nobody anywhere ever hearing of my ideas. Thanks to digital culture, I’m able to make my work directly available to anyone in the world who has an Internet connection.  If only a tiny fraction of the people who can read it for free decide to buy it, giving me a few thousand dollars a year in royalties, I’m richer by exactly that amount than I would have been in the “good old days” when my manuscripts would have yellowed in an attic.

For every small full-time musician who has a harder time scraping by, and may have to supplement his performing revenues with a day job, I suspect there are ten people like me who would have spent their entire lives as (if you’ll pardon the expression) mute inglorious Miltons, without ever making a goddamned cent from their music or writing, but who can now be heard.  And for every blockbuster writer or musician, who has a few million shaved off his multimillion dollar revenues as a result of online “piracy,” I suspect there are probably a hundred people like me.

I’m sure there are plenty of people like Jaron Lanier and Mark Helprin who wouldn’t consider it any great loss had my work been stillborn in a world without the Internet.  I’m just another one of those “hive mind” people who write like Popeye talks, destroying authorial voice, and yada yada yada. Well, fuck ’em.

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