Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Copylefting and Crowdsourcing Benefit the Consumer

Written by johnleemk on 2:10:26 pm Jan 19, 2007.
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The last time I wrote about copyrights, I mentioned this piece from The Register as an interesting one I'd like to rebutt. I highly recommend that you read it, because I understand and sympathise with the author's gripes. Nevertheless, I feel that the conclusions drawn are rather erroneous. Take, for instance, the following argument:

The mainstream media has propagandized hard for Citizen Journalism ever since the mobile phone images of the July 7th London bombings, but sadly, this enthusiasm has little to do with journalism or democratising the media.

User Contributed Content should be more accurately termed 'Audience Stolen Content', because media groups rarely pay for Citizen Journalism images and more often than not, either claim the copyright or an all-encompassing license from contributors, when they send their pictures in. That's a copyright grab in all but name.

I hardly think it can be considered stealing, since most people voluntarily send their contributions in. If people do not understand the ramifications from submitting their works to the media, then it is either the media's fault for not prominently explaining its licensing policies (which, I believe, can be considered an offence in some places) or the public's fault for not taking the care to understand the consequences of their actions. In either case, newspapers have long been using other forms of user-contributed content - namely letters to the editor, etc. - under sucvh all-encompassing licences, so this is hardly something new, nor is it, on the face of it, something condemnable. I think it's a major accomplishment for mankind if I can take a photo of a bombing in Iraq, email it to an editor in London, and have it published on a website in Malaysia.

Only a fraction of the savings or additional income derived from publishing and syndicating user-contributed images is then actually reinvested in journalism. Most of it simply helps pay the media company's shareholder dividend. Massive newspaper job losses and wage cuts have cut a swathe through newsrooms this year and the slack is often taken up by stolen content, stolen from their own readers.

So much for media "democracy". Some newspapers and magazines are enthusiastically accepting such "content", simply because it's cheap or free, and the quality of the content largely reflects that.

The "stolen" misnomer aside, such inefficiencies are often common in many industries. It may not be right, but it's the price we pay for living in a free market. If the result is truly undesirable, users can always opt for alternative news sources. This increased demand for quality reporting by professionals (assuming that that is what most people want, as the author seems to claim) would in turn create a niche for professional journalistic establishments. That's the beauty of the free market. If user-created content is dominating, it may just be a sign of what the public prefers.

Such a move dishonestly offers a false 'interactivity' between the publisher and audience, shows contempt for readers by assuming they'll accept rubbish, and adds insult to injury by encouraging them to produce the very stuff they'll be seeing - and paying for nothing.

Au contraire - the consumer is not "paying for nothing". What the consumer is paying for is the editorial service. We do not have the time to separate the wheat from the chaff in user-created media. We prefer to leave that task to professionals, and since there's no such thing as a free lunch, we have to pay for this service. If you believe the price is unjustified, it's your opinion, but not the market's. As long as people are willing to buy newspapers that rely on user-contributed material, it's a sign that they believe the editorial services provided are worth the price.

It's a race to the bottom, and is a fundamental failure by publishers to invest in their businesses for their readers benefit. It has consequently put massive pressure on professional photographers, who have to reduce their rates, or submit to copyright grabs themselves in order to get work, which is drying up and being replaced by stolen audience content.

Has it perhaps occurred to you that maybe amateur hobbyists can create content of just as high quality as that made by professionals, and feel rewarded enough simply by seeing their work in print? Wikipedia is actually an example of this. Originally, most of its photographs and illustrations were of poor quality, being made by amateurs. Gradually, impetus grew among hobbyist contributors to brush up on their skills. Over time, the quality of the illustrations has improved to the kind you might see in any professional encyclopaedia - and photographs are not far behind. Why should anyone pay for graphical information when the same information can be conveyed graphically for free?

Quite how putting professional photographers and journalists on the dole is supposed to increase the quality of public knowledge of events, or the overall 'creative commons' escapes me at present, because despite the ongoing commodification of images, not all images are equal.

You won't see any mobile phone images from Darfur any time soon for example...

Precisely - not all images are created equal. Photojournalists who specialise in replaceable content will find themselves in a shrinking market as their niche is taken by up by hobbyists. Photojournalists who specialise in irreplaceable content, however, will continue to be in demand. It's simple economics. How can shrinking demand for a stock photograph of George Bush have much, if any, effect on the market for a photo from Darfur? These two photos are sold in different markets. (I speak, of course, of markets in the abstract sense.)

True 'citizen journalists' are people like Iraqi news journalists working where western photographers dare not go, to document the destruction of their homeland. Despite putting themselves and their families in peril 24 hours a day, most if not all of them earn a pittance and many relinquish their copyright on images and stories which make the front pages of the worlds newspapers. Just this year alone, 32 have died.

That is truly a pity, but I would venture to suggest that the reason they are paid a pittance is simply the large supply of such images. After all, if 32 Iraqi photojournalists died in 2006, that would certainly be suggestive of a large number of Iraqis going around and snapping photos. As a result, if any single photojournalist attempted to up his price, news agencies would simply buy their photos from someone else. The true reason for these low prices is not abusive news agencies - it is the competition amongst the numbers of struggling Iraqi journalists.

It's ironic that internet campaigners spend so much time complaining about the injustices of copyright, and extolling the virtues of a copyright free economy - because copyright is already dead. This is true both as perception and reality.

The perception is "if it's on the web, it's either free, or I'm gonna nick it anyway because, hey, 'they' can afford it". The reality is that there are now more copyright-free or near-free images on the web than copyright images. Most of them will be on Flickr (owned by Yahoo!), MySpace (owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation) or the major corporate image portals. Neither Flickr nor MySpace exist to commercially leverage images, but clients now go there trawling for free content, so they don't have to pay a photographer for it. It has caused a crash in the unit cost of any images which aren't given away and which are licensed for profit.

Absolutely - copyright is already half-nailed into its coffin. Incidentally, the argument that people taking images from Flickr, etc. are stealing sounds very similar to the typical argument against illegal music/movie filesharing. As proponents of filesharing love to point out, there isn't necessarily a net loss in profits if people download these files for free, simply because they would not, in all probability, have bought them at all if a price was charged for them. Most people who go "trawling for free content" are either individuals or small organisations - people who would likely balk at forking out a few hundred dollars for a stock image.

With mass rip-offs on the Web and the unit value of images crashing, photographers can no longer make a living independently from their work, and so are driven towards working for these corporations to earn a living. As digital content becomes more commodified, the more certain it is that only big business can profit from it, thanks to their economies of scale.

A rather short-sighted and myopic view, I think. First of all, many people will be able to leverage copyrighted content that they otherwise would not be able to, and add to the economy. Secondly, the market will typically set the most reasonable price for a product by equating supply and demand. If the market will bear the price set by the huge companies, then it cannot be said that the price is unreasonable. The exception, of course, is in the case of an oligopoly, where media is dominated by a few large companies. Still, it is difficult to see how to address this problem. What would the author have us do? Mandate by force of law that people be banned from copylefting their works, or from giving them free of charge to big companies?

Amateurism isn't intrinsically harmful, but it's now a factor in penalizing and impoverishing creatives who choose to pursue authorship as their sole, full time, economic function. Instead, we're expected to work for charity.

"Crowdsourcing" is the latest buzzword, but under our present economic system its simply globalisation in practice - being the same force which drove 19th Century artisans into factories to sell their labour power to the factory boss. In this case, the lowest cost producer the amateur photographer throwing their images onto the Web, to be 'content mined' - is also the consumer. The amateur will buy a newspaper or magazine simply for the thrill of being in print. It's the same model that mine owners used when they paid their workers in 'company money'.

Pure profit, zero labour cost.

As pointed out earlier, it is not pure profit. It takes money, time and energy to wade through the mass of content submitted everyday, and then to arrange it in an organised and systematic (while yet aesthetically-pleasing) manner.

Only the big money corporations have the means to enforce their ownership rights, so the widespread theft of individual authors rights benefits them the most, and this has a chilling effect, as it discourages authors from placing their work on the Web.

It does? Most small-time authors, such as myself, have only been encouraged to put our work on the web, since this freedom to build on the works of others actually makes things easier for us. Most big-time authors who work for corporations or large organisations also haven't had many qualms about going online. After all, if their work is stolen, their organisation will back them up.

What's at stake is probably the position of the middling, in-between kind of author - one for whom writing and/or photography is his lifeblood, but yet because he lacks the backing of an organisation, cannot afford to enforce his legally-granted rights. Nevertheless, get real, please - how many authors have been deterred from putting their works online for fear of copyright theft?

You could point to books as an example, but I don't think that would be quite accurate. Even the biggest corporations have refrained from e-publishing because of its risks, so you can hardly accuse the information revolution of benefiting corporations at the expense of authors on this count.

To throw the baby out with the bathwater and abolish copyright altogether, or to behave like it doesn't exist is equally short-sighted, and brings us the very cultural atrophy that anti-copyright advocates claim to be against.

Most anti-copyright arguments are based on a distaste for unfairly held "property". But for individual authors, it's not, and never really has been a property issue - it's our labour we're talking about. Copyright exists to allow us to earn a living, but routine flouting of this law simply strengthens the ability of large companies to seize that labour and sit on it for profit as their property.

While I agree, I think it's simply impossible to enforce copyright any longer. Now that information can be represented in an easily-transferred form, it is impossible to keep people from naturally sharing information, even if legally they do not have the right to share it. While I understand and sympathise with the hard position this places professional journalists in, I just can't see what they expect us to do. Expecting the public to, of its own volition, stop simply downloading and sharing information can hardly be sane. It's the right thing, but since when have people done the right thing? And will legislation solve this? It can't, because any legislation is basically unenforceable when it comes to sharing information. (Witness how utterly ineffective lawsuits have been on music and movie filesharing.)

In reality, what is happening on the web is the transfer of the authors' labour to large corporations for nothing. Anti-copyright lobbyists have become either unwitting allies, or shills, for big business.

In the long term, I think, the information revolution will make big business largely obsolete when it comes to things like this. Large corporations are more than capable of aggregating content and reaping economies of scale, it is true - but so are large organisations. The Wikimedia Foundation which runs Wikipedia also operates the Wikimedia Commons, a large and growing collection of copylefted images (including some by professional photographers who have voluntarily licensed their work under a copyleft licence). Eventually, I believe things like Commons will make corporations obsolete - at least in the role of aggregating content,


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