Monthly Archives: May 2006

“scan this book”?

siva linked to “scan this book!”, a NYT magazine article by kevin kelly, with a promise to post comments about it soon. i look forward to them, and in the meantime will post my own (hurried & no-doubt flawed) quick reactions to one point:

Authors and publishers (including publishers of music and film) have relied for years on cheap mass-produced copies protected from counterfeits and pirates by a strong law based on the dominance of copies and on a public educated to respect the sanctity of a copy. This model has, in the last century or so, produced the greatest flowering of human achievement the world has ever seen, a magnificent golden age of creative works. Protected physical copies have enabled millions of people to earn a living directly from the sale of their art to the audience, without the weird dynamics of patronage. Not only did authors and artists benefit from this model, but the audience did, too. For the first time, billions of ordinary people were able to come in regular contact with a great work. In Mozart’s day, few people ever heard one of his symphonies more than once. With the advent of cheap audio recordings, a barber in Java could listen to them all day long.

Um, no. I mean, partly yes, but partly no. Let’s not get the “protected physical copies” cart before the horse of creativity and economic power. The “greatest flowering of human achievement” has been enabled by a relatively wealthier populace; the wealth has been largely enabled by technology which enabled faster & more efficient production and resource extraction. Billions of ordinary people can come into contact with works, great or otherwise, because they have surplus capital and time to purchase them (technology, democracy, FEMINISM, the labor movement, etc.); it is cheap to reproduce them (because of technology); and as a result of this expanded marketplace, and greater leisure / capital, more people could create their own works. (And the barber in Java, if she is like barbers in many other developing nations, is listening to the recordings despite copyright law, not because of it.)

The transitional technological moment when works could be mass-produced but only with expensive equipment and with relatively expensive resources allowed a chokehold on that production, and certain parties were able to make a killing on that chokehold — record producers, publishers, and the like. But the chokehold didn’t enable the flowering — like a dam, it just siphoned off energy from a river that was already flowing. Sorry for the mixed metaphors. But let’s not isolate creativity and copyright from history and the real world.

There’s no question that, as Kelly suggests, this is a clash of business models. But it’s important to characterize the middle-man business model correctly: not as the cause of creativity, but as a by-product of creativity + a transitional technological state. If you think about it that way, you quickly figure out that middle-men’s interests not only aren’t protected by copyright law, they’re not even the interests described in the Constitutional “Authors and Inventors”. If the middle-men want to continue making revenue, they’ll have to do it in some way that adds to the value. The principal means they formerly had of adding value no longer cut it. Creation and capture are getting cheaper, being reduced just to their human inputs of creativity and ingenuity — as they should be. And distribution costs are approaching zero. Thanks for bringing your expensive printing presses, recording and processing equipment, and land-based distribution methods to the party, guys, but we can party on without them now. What else ya got? Editing? Selection? Indexing? Archiving? Tagging? Promotion? Because all those things could be very helpful.

… Anyway, I largely enjoyed the article, although I skimmed it very quickly during a short break. I look forward to reading it again at more leisure (and to Siva’s eventual commentary).