I spent all morning posting links about how OWS was awesome so nobody gets to call me a fascist. And this isn’t about that terrible Anti-Piracy bill, which was trying to kill flies with grenade launchers. This is just trying to make the “Free Culture” crowd feel a little bit guilty.
I can’t help but think that online piracy is the reason people in entertainment don’t take creative risks anymore. Every new movie is 3D-friendly to prevent piracy and if it’s a small indie movie, it had better be New York Times-approved or it’s going right to Redbox. Uber-pretentious or uber-stupid, with no middle ground. I don’t particularly care for From Dusk Til Dawn, but it started Robert Rodriguez’s career. Would that movie have made money these days, or would it just be a pirated sensation? (Or better yet, everybody’s favorite two-hour Youtube video?)
It’s the tragedy of the commons: there’s no good reason not to steal a movie, but when everyone does it the landscape shifts, and not for the better. I can’t pretend that this isn’t happening in comics anymore. The small-publishing boom of the eighties produced about the same level of quality as the current netcomics boom, but the difference is that the small-pressers could afford to keep doing it. People’s unwillingness to shell out a few bucks for an interesting piece of work hasn’t totally destroyed this, but it’s disingenuous to say that pirating “has actually helped artists”. You don’t get to steal stuff and then say that you’re helping the person you stole from.
In any medium there are always “little guys” who take risks and think outside the box. Most of them fail. But in the internet world, it is well known that your actual content is expected to be free: if you actually want to make money, you have to sell “merchandise”. Bands are in the same boat: “all the money is in touring” and whatnot. Money can still be made, people can still be successful. But somehow creative works and entertainment are seen as fundamentally different from everything else someone has to make. If you ran a candy store and people always stole your candy, you might get some good “word of mouth” and maybe you could make some of the money back on big corporate orders or something. But nobody could claim that that was the most effective way for you to be successful. Creative people who want to make money off their art are trying to navigate a landscape where the idea of selling the actual art is seen as “old-fashioned”. Sure, it can be done if you’re clever, but doesn’t anyone notice how convoluted all of the pro-piracy arguments are?
My stuff will probably always be free, because I like to share it and I like all of the opportunities the internet has given me to do that. My comics are probably so weird and off-putting to most people that I could never be the next Gilbert Hernandez or whatever. I’d be plugging away just the same, staying poor and doing it because it’s what I love. I doubt I’ve ever been directly affected by piracy in any negative way. And the reason I don’t steal music has a lot more to do with the fact that I can’t figure out how computers work than any high-minded ideals I might claim to have.
But stealing doesn’t become “sharing” just because it’s easy to do. Internet and “free” culture are based on stealing, and it’s naive to think that this won’t have any killing effect on creativity at all.