Monday, 17 January 2011

Let Writers Be Writers: Musicians Musicians and Film Makers Film Makers Too

This past summer, I came across across an article by Mike Masnick over at Techdirt that I fully intended to blog about. Other subjects have kept coming in-between, and thus that post was never written. In all honesty, this post is not it either, but (for reasons I will return to) some of the basic gist of what I opposed in the article has just recently been given new immediacy here in Sweden.

Masnick's article dealt with copyright issues and was a response to some things written by composer Jason Robert Brown on his blog. Among other things, Masnick quotes Brown: "The blueprints for your house should be free. Movies should be free. The DSM-IV should be free, regardless of the expense required to create these things." He then responds by writing:
This is really frustrating because people accuse me of making this kind of statement all the time. It's not should, it's will. 'Should' is a moral argument. 'Will' is a predictive economic explanation. People aren't saying the information 'should' be anything. They're saying it will be -- or, more likely -- already is. Again, the question is what do you do about it? Falsely claiming people are giving it moral value by saying 'should' twists an economic/business model debate into a moral one.
Perhaps needless to say, I have a couple of problems with Masnick's argument.

First of all, it allows for no ethical dimension in an economic/business discourse. Or rather, his argument never considers whether the fact that something is a certain way means that it should, or ought to, be that way (i.e. is it ethically sound). By way of an admittedly very rough but also very clear analogy, slavery was an economic reality and it was hardly financial reasons that drove that foul practice out of existent in most culture; it was ethical reasons. In fact, given slave-like conditions in manufacturing in certain Asian and African countries, one can only assume that capitalism per se has absolutely no problem whatsoever with the concept of slavery.

Secondly, I find that Masnick's analysis lacks a certain depth. In not better analysing what will be (or perhaps already is), Masnick fails to consider possible implications and consequences of this predictive economic explanation. Now, the quote above is, as stated, a direct response to the following Jason Robert Brown quote: "The blueprints for your house should be free. Movies should be free. The DSM-IV should be free, regardless of the expense required to create these things." If we focus on the second sentence (i.e. the one referencing the medium of the film) and apply Masnick's logic that films will be free (if they are not already), this raises an important issue: Who will make films for free?

Oh, sure enough, there would probably be some ventures made, but clearly the most expensive artistic/entertainment medium we have created would suffer if there would be no money to be made, because who would want to invest? Masnick's analysis may be correct on one level (i.e. that the situation with, currently illegal, downloading may well suggest the predictive economic explanation he sees), but fails to go deep enough to see that this condition might actually lead to there being no film production at all. At which point at least I feel it appropriate to ask: Is that what we want?

So what has given this the new immediacy mentioned in the opening of this post? Well, in the last week or two, there has been something of a public dispute between Swedish author Björn Ranelid and the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, historian Peter Englund. The whole (somewhat ludicrous) affair started when Ranelid, currently a participant in the latest edition of the Swedish version of the TV program Let's Dance, threw out the challenge that the members of the Swedish Academy should leave their ivory tower and participate in this program (or at the very least others like it, presumably).

So what does this have to do with Masnick's article? Well, Masnick and his ilk continuously propose that musicians, film makers, even authors, adapt to the current market and develop new business models. In short, this means a view where for example an author should write his books for free and gain payment some other way, be it on lecture/reading tours or participation in TV programs, etc. Personally, I have two major problems with this idea.

Firstly, I doubt many other workers would accept it if you went up to them and said, "So, hey, we're not going to pay you for your work from now on, but we want you to continue doing it. We understand that you want to be paid, but you just have to do something else on the side to make money." I dare you to try it with a construction worker or a doctor.

Secondly (and sticking with the example of writers), the qualities of writers do not require them to be loquacious, quick-thinking or witty. Heck, they are in no way required to be any type of public performers. What is required by any given writer is a good imagination, a way with words and an understanding of the craft of writing.

Do not get me wrong. I am by no means saying that a writer cannot be a loquacious, quick-thinking and witty public performer who thrives in front of stadium-size audiences. I am merely pointing out that the two are unrelated, and that, perhaps more importantly, there is something seriously wrong if we promote writers not on the basis of their writing, but on how they perform in (at the very least somewhat) unrelated fields. Personally, I am not comfortable with this. I want to read good books, not books by people who happen to be good on stage or in TV sofas, etc (although I do not, as ought to be clear by now, mind reading good books by the latter).

So, for crying out loud, let writers be writers, musicians musicians and film makers film makers too!

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