I just read Sion Touhig‘s article “How the Anti-copyright Lobby Makes Big Business Richer” on the Register, and I found it deeply problematic, even if I sympathize with the cause he wants to defend: empowering and preserving the livelihoods of freelance professionals. See also his posting at his weblog here. From his opening:
“I’m a freelance professional photographer, and in recent years, the internet ‘economy’ has devastated my sector. It’s now difficult to make a viable living due to widespread copyright theft from newspapers, media groups, individuals and a glut of images freely or cheaply available on the Web.”
Throughout his article Touhig argues that “media democracy” and “citizen journalism,” aggregated free content, Copyleft, Creative Commons etc. has destroyed the little man’s business and, if passed, the Orphan Works Bill will also rob the little man of his ability to defend his copyright.
As I understand it, the basic system works something like. You create something—a photograph, say—and find that it, having value, can be sold, or licensed, for a certain amount to certain companies or directly to individuals. Its eventual price, if it can be sold, is determined by any number of factors, including the demand for your kind of creative work and supply of other cheaper or free content. Your copyright to this work, certainly not a divinely bestowed right, is at least nominally protected by the laws of a society which believes that the protection of a creative work will, in the end, encourage its people to create more such content in the future.
We find ourselves in a situation now where people of lesser talent, dedication, or financial means (for surely you need at least one, if not two of these three to succeed as a photojournalist) can easily share what we produce with the entire world. Our motivations may be many. Some of those who share what they create, or contribute it to large news corporations or other websites, may hope that they can eventually develop their art into a future career. However, many if not most of people are motivated out of the desire for fame or out of altruism—out of the sincere hope that what they created might be enjoyed or found useful by someone else out there.
Touhig’s article insults those people. It belittles that desire, and it reflects a bitterness about change which is found everywhere and in every generation.
No one is forcing Touhig to use a Creative Commons license. No major corporation is the malevolent puppet-master of the Copyleft movement. These are tools, admirable ones in my opinion, which have in mind not just the producers of content (including both those who wish to profit and those who do not wish to profit from their creative work) but the consumers of content. It gives them both a wonderful set of choices related to how they distribute, use, and modify creative works. In the case of the Creative Commons, it is designed to compliment, not replace, copyright protections.
Touhig is perhaps accurate in, and I am in no position to challenge, his claims about the specific changes within his industry that relate to the increasing difficulties of photojournalists to charge certain amounts for their work or be paid certain amounts to be dedicated to their craft. However, he is completely off the mark when he says that supporters of the various movements above are the “unwitting allies, or shills” of big business. If individual copyright holders have few means to protect their copyright by legal challenges, this is hardly the fault of the Creative Commons movement or Flickr or OhMyNews. If the photojournalist’s photographs are not selling at the same price they used to because there is a sudden flood of cheap alternatives created by people who have no profit motive, it is hardly appropriate to chide the charitable for giving away their content. If the consumer is satisfied with the less skillfully snapped photo, the less grammatically correct article, the goofy home video, or even the factually imperfect article on OhMyNews, WikiNews, etc. it is disingenuous for an elitist photographer to lament the world’s decline in standards by criticizing the movements which make it possible for us all to easily share content.
I used to put together some free macintosh software which I host foolsworkshop.com. My creations are all but useless now but there was a time when at least one of the free programs I created competed favorably with other commercial and shareware software out there. Before the rise of the internet amateur freeware developers such as myself did not have the means to distribute our creations. Other software developers, large and small sold their products via catalogs and shops. When a freeware product is well done, and it offers a comparable or least nearly comparable feature set with a shareware or commercial option, it out-competes the latter. Touhig’s position in his article is comparable to a small-time shareware developer accusing people like me of being the shill or unwitting ally of the commercial software companies. “You bourgeois running dog scum, how dare you give away your labor? What about proles like me who make a living out of this? What about my labor? How dare you undersell sell me with your free software. Don’t you see how this plays into the hands of the capitalists?”
All I can say to Touhig is that I hope he thinks through his position again and reflects on the two successful approaches that both small and big businesses (after all, things like Youtube started as a small business) have taken in response to these new developments. When they can, businesses try to co-opt these energies for its own benefit. When they can’t, they resist, with all their legal, lobbying, and coercive power any attempt to dilute their copyrighted assets. The fact that they can do the latter far better than any individual artist or professional is a matter of course. That is why movements such as the Creative Commons and those supporting serious copyright reforms need to be organized, committed, and highly vigilant in order to prevent a stifling of the very forces of creative energy that the internet has unleashed. However, Touhig completely misses the fact that creative professionals stand a much better chance, if not an equal chance, in the former approach—competing with large corporations when it comes to making use of these new developments for their own benefit. Individuals can adapt faster than corporations. This will require a change of thinking on their part; a change of business model; a change of their whole sales philosophy. A failure to do so may indeed, as Touhig predicts, lead to the destruction of his kind. The onus, however, is on him and professionals like him to take the initiative and adapt.