The Authors Guild recently filed a brief against Hathi Trust Digital Library, a consortium seeking to place a large number of digitized titles online. Should this battle go Hathi's way, the road could be cleared for a 'content is free' future. Will this empower or destroy authors? Actually, a bit of both.
The internet helps creative people circulate their content to millions, gaining influence, meaning and occasionally fame. Yet monetizing this goodwill is like wringing blood from a stone. Why? Because the internet unites three impulses that once lived separate lives. First, creators love what they do. For many, a willing audience is reward enough. Second, the internet acts as a force multiplier for content. Music, print, programs and images are cheap to distribute, but more importantly, they easily escape from the supply chains creators require in order to get paid. Audiences share digital creations without paying for them. Finally, consumers expect digital content for free because we all have a cognitive bias against paying for intangible goods - even when we value them highly. Together, this cocktail is spawning a new class of impoverished innovators, widening social divisions.
Imagine a fairy offers a bargain: write a book that reaches millions but earns nothing, or pen one which nets you $5000 but finds a mere thousand readers. Which would you choose? Even if you'd take the money - and many wouldn't - the internet compels you to choose fame over fortune. This has important implications.
Vincent Van Gogh, like many famous artists, writers and musicians, died penniless. Political reformers and social activists - Gandhi or Mother Teresa for instance - also earned fame without fortune. The phrase 'rich and famous' trips off the tongue so easily we forget the two aren't joined at the hip. At a less exalted level, cult musicians, literary nobodies and amateur sports stars - one thinks of Rugby Union players in Britain until recently - earn peanuts but are far better known than rich bankers.
Talented people choose low-paid careers if they offer competing satisfactions: meaning, fun, freedom, fame. Artists, writers, activists and priests sacrifice money to pursue meaning. So do economists who opt for the public sector over private firms. This behaviour drives an economic wedge between well-educated haves and have-nots.
In the 1960s, the main earnings gap separated the university-educated from the rest. No more. A study by George Neumann and Beth Ingram discovered a widening disparity in pay within the American university-educated population between 1970 and 1997 while the difference between university and high-school educated people barely budged. Other studies show so called 'super-creatives' earn much less than those who manage them. Arts graduates now suffer a significant earnings penalty compared to those taking more lucrative degrees. The fine for selecting a meaningful or creative profession was always there, but is becoming more pronounced.
Fame leads to fortune only when the famous person can exact a charge for each unit they supply. But when the product on offer is an intangible creation like a song or article, the internet allows it to be copied and distributed free, annihilating monetary rewards. Many viral creations attract a smattering of advertising revenue, but most of the value remains uncaptured by its creators.
An exasperated internet entrepreneur recently commented to me that people will gladly drop $5 on a latte at Starbucks. But ask them to pay the equivalent for content that matters more to them and they balk, preferring to surf for a free second-rate substitute. Similarly, many won't pay for the good journalism they crave, settling instead for lower-quality flotsam. We instinctively value tangible objects like gold and ipads. Paying for internet content seems like paying for air.
Not content to indulge their private irrationality, some, like Germany's Pirate Party, elevate it into a rallying cry for all intangibles to be free. Internet libertarians call for open access to academic research while beating the drum for unrestrained file-sharing. Hathi Trust speaks with the same voice. They claim this will stimulate more creativity, equality, freedom and consumer satisfaction. Perhaps they're right. Musicians, authors, journalists, programmers and other creative types pay the price but influence larger audiences.
Some will have to give up, shelving their dreams in order to eat. Yet the dirty secret is many enjoy what they do too much - like starving artists they possess an irrepressible desire to create that will keep the content flowing at whatever price. Few pass up the chance to reach a wider audience. The internet happily exploits this weakness, turning them into paupers. The amount of music produced each year continues to rise despite piracy, just as PhD applications seem impervious to the reality of academic unemployment. In the end, Web 2.0 may or may not degrade cultural output. But its primary effect will be to widen the income divide between those who will and won't trade meaning for money.