Scarcity vs Plenty

Miriam English

How might artists, writers, and musicians survive in the information age when works are so easily copied and shared? How can we make a living? This is incredibly important, and I am surprised it doesn't get properly discussed more often. Usually a few glib phrases are thrown in to inspire fear and nothing is ever solved. But file sharing won't go away by passing a few laws or refusing to look at it.

Things are different now, but most of us haven't caught onto the fact yet.

Up until now scarcity often defined something's value. If something is scarce it becomes valuable. Gold is scarce and derives most of its value from that. An artist's works jump in value as soon as they die; the art has not changed, just its availability. Stamp collecting is a widespread hobby. The most valuable stamps are the rarest ones.

Very few things in our economy are defined simply by intrinsic value. To keep a high value on an item its availability is restricted -- limited edition runs, monopolisation of the source, dumping over-produced food into landfills. Even mass-produced items, which were the great change to come out of the industrial revolution, are restricted at their sale-point.

With the internet has come a great change. For the first time in history we can copy and distribute any number of exact copies of an original at almost no cost. It almost eliminates the costs of production, transport, and advertising. This could be the beginning of a new era of plenty in which, no person, no matter how poor, need ever miss out on things ever again.

Unfortunately this terrific opportunity is seen by most established businesses as a threat and has caused a proliferation of 'piracy' laws and 'Intellectual Property' laws. It has added greatly to the corporate push to invert the original intent of copyright law and extend its claim to eventually eliminate public domain. The net effect is to ensure that a rigid hierarchy is imposed upon the world, forever dividing it into information rich and information poor. Perhaps that isn't the intention, but that's the result.

How have we turned a limitless source of wealth into something so sad?

Fear.

Those at the top have convinced the rest of us that we need scarcity in order to make a living. (Never mind that it already fails miserably for the 90% of the population who are kept in poverty by it.) We fear that if we don't force people to pay us a price kept artificially high by restricting the source, then we won't be able to earn a living. We fear that someone will steal our product and income if we don't lock it up.

But there are now increasing numbers of examples where people paradoxically make money by giving their wares away. The Open Source movement has pointed the way here. It is based upon people giving it away, and being paid by donation or employed by companies whose business depends upon that software or information. Probably the most publicised example is Linux, an open source operating system which is free to download and you are encouraged to give it to friends. There has been an explosion of companies who make an income from the sale of CD sets of various flavours of Linux, manuals, and consulting. Fedora, Mandriva, Caldera, Debian, Gentoo, and even other companies like Corel and IBM all make a good income out of this free product. Some people have successfully extended this model into other arenas, like Live Journal, a very popular web-log ('blog') site. It gives accounts away, but also sells accounts. The added advantages of a paid account are trivial, and most people who buy an account on Live Journal do so because they like to contribute. This has made Live Journal a successful, thriving business. It is no accident that Live Journal applies the open source philosophy in this way; its creator has always made the source code to Live Journal freely available.

The big challenge of this new century is to make plenty work for us. We have a real opportunity to make the potential wealth of humanity multiply almost without limit... or else go down the same old, well-worn, dark path of restricting that wealth to just a small, lucky segment of society, leaving the bulk of humanity out in the cold. We could get away with this in the past, but the future of the planet depends upon us finding equitable solutions for society. If we cause deep poverty we decrease security everywhere. When people are born into a life with no future then they have nothing to lose by striking out against those who restrict their opportunities. The only way to put the brakes on the population explosion is by raising people's standard of living. Most of the developed world now has a negative population growth, while the population of the insecure 3rd world continues to grow alarmingly.

So how can we make this horn of plenty work for writers, artists, and musicians? We are the people at the edge of this new world. We are the ones who are most under threat from the changes, and we have always got the worst deal from the old ways. If our work can be easily copied and shared how can we make a living from it? This needs to be solved quickly. There is plenty of evidence to show that filesharing is the beginning of a giant wave and that legal efforts to stem it are ultimately doomed to failure. People like to share their good fortune. Not only do they like to share files and their time, they also like to share money. Donation is becoming a viable business model. It requires a shift in perception though. Not everybody will pay, but if you spread your wares far enough then sufficient numbers of people will pay that you can derive a reasonable income. Even the unpaid-for shared files are not truly a loss. They didn't cost you anything and they can be leveraged as free advertising.

Brilliant writer/director Joss Whedon has used this sharing via the online community to maintain a highly successful enterprise. When his superb TV series 'Firefly' was inexplicably cancelled by the television networks his shows and scripts were circulated via the online community and helped to generate such a following that when he released his DVD set of the series they sold in their millions. He made enough money to fund the movie 'Serenity', which completes the story he set out to tell in the TV series.

The donation-based, non-profit sector is growing rapidly. It is now the 8th biggest economy in the world. It is clear that people like to share and donate. Project Gutenberg is a great example of how people have happily donated millions of hours and much money to create a free library of currently more than 17,000 freely downloadable books.

We stand at the crossroads. We can help to change the world by embracing sharing, or we can keep to the old greed-based way. One direction leads to a more equitable society with rising wealth for all. The other bases its power on poverty. One way uses good will as its strength; the other is steeped in fear and distrust.

We might not actually have a choice. Very few writers, artists, and musicians make a living out of the system as it stands anyway. Taking the road to sharing wealth might be our only chance to survive.


2005-09-14