The concept of an artist’s “right to get paid” for their efforts inevitably arises in any discussion of filesharing and the future of the web. The thought is that artists have worked hard for what they’ve produced and as a result, should be guaranteed some kind of compensation. Following this is the idea that if this compensation is taken away, the artist will have no motivation to produce their creative works. Thus, if we want to continue to enjoy culture, we must expect to financially compensate these people. I think this idea is fundamentally flawed.
Simply putting effort into something is not sufficient reason to reap any kind of external reward, especially financial compensation. Most of us have had an experience where we worked hard on something but received little to no acknowledgment from others. A personal example: As a kid, my family was part of an organic food co-op that involved delivery and pickup of the food from our garage on certain months. A few days before one of these pickups, I had learned how to make origami rabbits from Highlights magazine. In preparation, I proceeded to make dozes of these rabbits on neon-colored paper and set them out on a table for our visitors. They could have one of their own for only 25 cents!
Needless to say, I didn’t get many customers. Aside from making a kid feel better, why would anybody want a simple paper rabbit? Even if somebody did, it would be easy enough for them to figure out how to make one of their own. At the end of the day, one person, a mother, gave me a few dollars and took all of them, giving them to her young daughter to play with in the backseat. The key here is that it wasn’t the effort I put into making the rabbits that gave them value, it was how much value the customer perceieved they had. To most of the potential customers, the rabbits were useless pieces of garishly-colored paper, but to one, it was an inexpensive way to entertain her child during the drive home.
What artists produce has no value whatsoever, except what a potential customer assigns to it. The artist Vincent van Gogh was hardly wealthy during his lifetime; his work didn’t achieve global renown until twenty years after his death. Now, his original works have fetched some of the highest prices of all time. What we are currently facing is the devaluation of media that can be digitized. As a “product,” why would I want to pay for CDs or DVDs when I could get an indistinguishable copy for free from others? It just doesn’t make sense; yet, ignorant artists and disillusioned executives insist that the financing of their sybarite lifestyle is somehow a “right.”
There are a number of ways to leverage the power of people-to-people (p2p) networking to make money from creative efforts that myself and others have discussed previously. Yet the bottom line is this: artists today stand in the same place as everybody else: if you are trying to make money for working, you need to provide something for which others will be willing to pay. If you are simply doing something you love, by all means enjoy it—but don’t expect to get paid.