“Shouldn’t Artists Be Paid?” It Depends

Recently someone on an email discussion list I follow pointed out that authors or publishers of copyrighted pieces may be reliant on royalty income for their subsistence. The alternative to proprietary information might be that “only people with income from other sources (such as academic salaries) [would] be able to make their voices heard.”

I can’t speak for anyone else, but every single thing I write is freely available for unlimited reproduction. My book royalties generally average from $100-200 a month, with the occasional outlier of $50 or $300. I earn another $100-150 a month writing for Center for a Stateless Society (on a Creative Commons 3.0 license) depending on how much readers donate that month. I also get an occasional $400 or $500 every few months for writing something for a print periodical. I was surprised to learn from a friend in academia that this actually wasn’t bad compared to what most university faculty earn in royalties — almost nobody in academia, even in the days before easily replicable digital media, made enough from writing alone to live on.

So the dependence of most creators on “income from other sources” is actually part of the way things are right now, under proprietary culture. Almost nobody, right now, in the traditional proprietary information industries, makes much money. Most of the revenue streams flow to gatekeeper corporations. Only a lucky few blockbuster writers/acts can live off their writing, music, etc.

File-sharing may have seriously hurt music company revenues, but it’s mainly the companies themselves — not the artists — who have taken the hit. Disintermediation is bad for middlemen — so what else is new?

What I like about the free culture model is that it makes it possible for little guys like me outside the professional intellectual class to earn a non-negligible income stream from writing without the permission of gatekeeping institutions. I suspect the same is true for local garage bands who can now supplement their income playing in bars by marketing their music directly over the Internet (thanks to desktop editing technology that once would have required a million-dollar studio). I also suspect that people like me and that garage band can much more effectively market our own work virally, within niches we know better than anybody else, than an academic publishing house or record company could.

I find in my case that the natural rents accruing to being first-to-market, name recognition, and the transaction costs of setting up a competing version of my books (which anyone is free to do) are enough to bring me that income. It’s possible to download facsimiles of any of my books from The Pirate Bay, but the hard copy version for sale through Amazon and from my own POD publisher, show up on the first page of Google search results. Try to find my book The Homebrew Industrial Revolution on TPB, and you’re apt to spend a long time weeding out unauthorized versions created from early online rough drafts (without specifying the capture date) or earlier short monographs with the same title, before you find an authentic facsimile of the printed book. Such advantages of authenticity, convenience, name recognition, etc., are something worth making a modest payment for, for all except the most time-rich and money-poor.

If anything, I suspect the free PDF versions online are free advertising for people who would never have bought the book at all without a chance to metaphorically “thumb through” it.

And I haven’t even touched on the whole “Freemium” thing that Chris Anderson and Mike Masnick write about: using free content to promote naturally scarce adjunct services that can be monetized (e.g. Linux distros giving away software free and then selling customization and tech support services).

As my friend Katherine Gallagher (@zhinxy) argues on Twitter, “art, music, and literature existed for many centuries before modern copyright law. If your business model requires artificial scarcity and illogical legal violence to keep the money coming in, it deserves to fail.”

Citations to this article:

Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist