Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Paying For Art

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 23, 2010

Originally posted on Half an Hour, April 23, 2010.

denherr asks, How is an artist, such as a musician or writer supported to create and contribute if his creations have no economic value, and his individual creativity is limitlessly remashed into collective works? How does he feed himself? I love learning from your free presentations but where ultimately does the money(or oil) come from for your beer and your plane tickets to the conferences all over the world?

denherr, this is an old argument, but in brief, there are many ways to pay artists without levying a per-play or subscription fee on works, and without requiring royalties. In fact, most people in the world manage to make a living without these special privileges.

Take a brick-layer, for example. Every work he creates is an original work, but he doesn't get a patent or copyright for it, can't prevent other people from copying it or selling it or giving it to friends, etc. A brick-layer is paid for the time he lays bricks.

A chef, even a famous chef who creates unique dishes, is in the same situation. Recipes are shared freely and are almost never owned (indeed, cuisine would cease to exist if no person could duplicate a recipe). Chefs don't charge royalties, don't get copyrights, and yet make a very good living.

The people who write technical documents, who create commercial jungles, who do graphic arts or commercial work are also in the same situation. They again must surrender any royalties or rights to the work they create. But they do not die of starvation or fail to pay the rent. They make very good, sometimes even wealthy, salaries.

The situation where nobody pays a musician or artist except by buying individual copies of his or her work is unique. It probably wouldn't exist at all, except that it was created by music and book publishers as a means of underpaying artists (most of whom actually do struggle to make a living - so much for the beneficial effects of copyrights and royalties!).

If it weren't for the whole publishing and copyright mess we find ourselves in, artists would probably make very good livings, earning and keeping the entire profits from their live shows (instead of repaying advances they had to obtain from their publishers). Fans and patrons would pay for specific works, and people would line up to pay enough money to sponsor, say, new Lady Gaga song.

Most people in the world get paid for the time and effort they put into something. There's no reason artists can't be paid this way, except for the fact that publishers want to keep ripping them off.

This is how I get paid. I don't sit on my work and demand royalties; I share it as widely and freely as I can. This has resulted over the years in my being hired for a series of positions where I am paid to create even more work and share it (though occasionally my employers grumble that they should sit on the work and collect royalties, not realizing that this would in fact restrict my ability to create new work).

By sharing my work freely, people around the world are able to see it, and they willingly pay for me to come and speak to them. I do not collect speaker fees, but I do require that they pay my expenses, because otherwise I could not afford to travel to their cities. We both benefit, because I then use these trips to produce work that we share with other people around the world, and the cycle continues.

You might think, it's not a very good deal for some organization to pay several thousand dollars to fly me to their city. But consider the cost were they to buy books from me instead. They could get maybe 30 or 40 copies of an academic text for the same amount. This way, they get all my content I ever create for free, as many copies as they would ever need. It's actually an excellent deal for me.

What does my employer get? My employer is the government of Canada (it might have been some company, or a university; it just happens to be the government). They get the reputation from sponsoring my work, they get significant input into what I work on and where I work, they get me to contribute some of my work to Canadian companies (resulting in outcomes like this). I promote Canadian culture and values in Canada and around the world, stimulating business (and maybe even tourism) for Canada. It's a good deal for my employer.

What don't I get? Filthy rich. There's never going to be a million dollar payday in my life - no album that goes platinum, no book that hits the best-seller list. But you know what? I'm OK with that - because giving up the decent life I have for a longshot like fame and riches is a sucker's game. And for those of us who do anything outside popular culture - anything philosophical, academic, esoteric, radical or fringe - fame and fortune will never ever happen. Not only would I have to give up my nice home and salary, I would have to give up the things that really matter to me - my art, my creativity - to play this sucker's game. It`s not worth it.

So that`s how artists can be paid. We can pay them the same way we pay bricklayers, the same way we pay chefs, the same way we pay me. And what we get for that, I would wager, would be a beautiful thing.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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