Eurozine is a Vienna-based non-profit network of over 75 journals and small publications throughout Europe. It aggregates and often translates content from its partner publications for eurozine.com.
Its annual conference this year brought people together to ruminate on the theme ‘Changing Media – Media in Change’. And while ‘change’ is a perpetual condition of the field, organizers wanted answers to the pressing economic and political challenges specific to digital media.
I kept notes on a panel devoted to copyright issues that are relevant to TOD, especially as we're still testing what licenses work best for the publications (currently we're using the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike or CC-BY-SA, the same one used by Wikipedia). The questions weren’t entirely novel, but the conversation represented some of the dominant currents in these debates.
Pirjo Hiidenmaa, President of the European Writers' Council, asked the audience: what exactly are we so afraid of losing? We have more platforms than ever to read on, and no shortage of content. Perhaps we’re what we're desperately trying to hold onto is the long format book along with its authors and publishers.
They seem to be threatened, she claimed, by the technological imperative: If piracy is so easy, it will eventually become legal. But how can authors live if they can’t sell their ideas, and, more to the point, how should you sell an idea today?
The go-to answer is still copyright. Put a monetary claim on a text (in the abstract) and then on any physical manifestation it takes. There are now several business models adapting copyright to various physical forms:
-Publish and sell a bounded print book
-Sell ebook files
-License a file (to libraries, schools, and ebook readers)
-Sell a collection to a database for search (mostly libraries and schools)
-Reissue an out of print work (this seems to be catching on for small and large presses)
She also mentioned that individuals could turn to licensing companies to manage collective copyright, often done in the music business and for dramatic works. This is evidently done for writers in Scandinavian countries.
Leonard Dobusch from the Free University of Berlin rebutted that the problem isn’t digital technology but rather finding remuneration for artists – and we should get over our habit of seeing copyright as the solution.
Campaigns depicting how new uses of technologies can starve artists and impoverish creative output go back to cassette tapes. Actually, he showed that there’s been an increase in cultural content between 2002 and 2007: 66% more books, 30% more films, 50% more music, so the technological imperative doesn't seem to be cramping creative output.
According to a 2007 study (pdf) by Kretschmer and Hardwick on authors' earnings from copyright and non-copyright sources, 40% of authors live on writing alone. It’s a monetary distribution problem among writers, says Dobusch and copyright generally means that a smaller number of writers takes the largest cuts. Further, most books don’t thrive on markets anyway, so copyright makes little sense for niche areas such as linguistic minorities or avant garde literature.
Felix Stalder, a lecturer in digital culture and network theory at the Zürich University of Arts, pointed out that copyright is doing more than just tipping the scales towards the few - it’s a serious societal tax. It makes it harder to access materials and so requires more human labor to find stuff; it implies licensing and lawyer fees, and it has led to the enclosure of three million orphan works that could be feeding into the public domain.
Says Stalder, the economic situation of cultural producers has historically often been poor, forcing artists to find ways to make a living on the side of their craft. But today it’s much worse, with money concentrated at big firms with massive back catalogs and that can afford attorneys to defend their trove – a concentration of cultural economy directly related to copyright. Copyright strengthens blockbuster culture, not the individual artist.
Even worse, mechanisms for enforcing copyright once only included law and the courts to lengthen contracts, but now monopolistic companies use digital surveillance to enforce copyright online.
Stalder called traditional publishing the last vestiges of Fordism, a collapsing frame. Today’s writers will employ new forms of cultural production such as remixing, and publishers will start to promote innovative work that doesn’t jive with copyright. So is it worth enforcing the law if costs of enforcing it are too high?
He looked at a few new approaches to sustainability without copyright:
-The cultural flatrate used by a collecting society. But what works should be included? Tweets, blogs? How do you measure what each artist receives? Will surveillance be a problem? How do you distribute money?
-Long tail aggregation that can create mechanisms to relegate income based on attention. But he pointed out this wouldn’t be suitable for minority or niche content. Examples include small-scale donation sites such as flattr.
-Project centered approaches including community financial investments for pre-production. Authors can sell things that can’t be copied, using an economy of affection by building a fan base or rematerialization (books as well-designed fetish objects).
-A final solution could be state or private funding.
A few questions lingered. Why would a publisher pay a writer any advances if there is no copyrighted ‘thing’ to sell in the end, since anyone else could theoretically make use of the text as well? If there is no distinctive product or service for a reader, how can artists, editors, and publishers make a living? How can we sell something that doesn’t require the creation of material difference?
Also, with the rise of free and open movements, open access, and open data, new predators come into the mix. Google, Facebook and telecoms are also campaigning against copyright, so will they be the new profiteers in a more open setting? If so, how can we move forward in a way that benefits cultural producers and not corporations who see flowing content as integral to their entire business model?
Side note: I spoke with a Finnish editor at the conference who told me about Finland’s model: if you write three books and the books sell decently, then the government pays you an indefinite salary to keep going. Reward for labor well done, plus a general acknowledgment for our need for storytellers. The Scandinavian bard system sounds too good to be true, but could we imagine paying the individual laborer, not their product?