The components of the next media ‘business model’ are ready: dewy-eyed newcomers, not media’s Old Guard, will do the essential assembly and testing

august 2013 lolling nymphs circular balcony DSCF1026

The old classic forms for media are broken: their replacements are coming from young explorers open to the magic of possibility and experimentation - photographs of the Villa Borromeo: MIL22

The old classic forms for media are broken: their replacements are coming from young explorers open to the magic of possibility and experimentation
– photographs of the Villa Borromeo: MIL22

Though Larry Page, the Google co-founder, has a thatch of grey hair, we know he is still only forty-one. His baby face reminds us that he was twenty-five in 1998, when he hatched a search engine with Sergey Brin. We also know that Jimmy Wales was thirty-five when he launched the Wikipedia in 2001, and Jeff Bezos a mere thirty at the founding of Amazon.com in 1994.

So, why are we looking to today’s old media leaders to reshape the way we get news and commentary through them? Google, Wikipedia and Amazon — three inventions that have made done more than any others to re-shape the habits of those of us who used to be called bookworms — should have made it pointless for anyone to expect the big names in print media, whose chiefs are nearly all middle-aged or old, to build the bridge to future economic survival for their enterprises.

Three identifiers of the most promising scheme for publishing – called a ‘business model’ – look more practical and likely than ever:

Some form of collective ownership and management – which, for some new publishing groups, would mean replacing the old idea of ‘reader subscriptions’ with small ownership stakes for audience members who want a say in drafting rules and setting policy.

Consultative decision-making on strategic and policy matters helped by free, ‘sharable’ software tools designed to streamline collaboration — the kind being developed by New Zealand’s Loomio cooperative (the most sophisticated of which might include software tailored to deal with particular kinds of conflict).

Vast aggregations of micropayments making up the financial lifeblood of media collectives – from selling access to certain kinds of information or entertainment (though most of this would be free); or in-payments for the privilege of stakeholding, and outpayments when there are profits to be distributed.

Most of the worker-bees driving the creativity at Loomio and the micropayments innovator Flattr are decades younger than the old media leaders in continental Europe interviewed last week by The Guardian about their struggle to adapt for digitisation. The limit of bold and adventurous thinking by these appears to be a subscription club – similar to the plan described by Mario Calabresi, editor-in-chief of Italy’s La Stampa , in which most of its offerings would continue to be free …

… while holding back some premium content in order to be able to offer more in-depth information to those who want it. Around this premium content we are building a club-like structure, which brings together our keenest readers and offers them exclusive tools with which to understand the world.

Club, yes; but stake, no – and that is surely a mistake. Giving readers the chance to own a financial stake, even a small one, in drawing more traffic to a media site would encourage more of them to linger to chat with other readers – regularly log on to comments sections, treating them like virtual pubs or coffee-shops for relaxing sessions of teasing, information-sharing, debating and flirting anonymously and pseudonymously as well as in the prosaic guise of being, as on Facebook, simply themselves. One commenter on the Guardian survey of European papers had the media enterprise of the future exactly right:

ringodingo

13 June 2014 11:03am

… Newspapers, tv etc have to accept that media is now two-way.

So Guardian etc should become more like a social media site?

To an extent they already involve the readers with the comment threads.

Or, as the 2010 paper that this post-Gutenberg blog extends said, if we may be forgiven for the unpardonable sin of quoting ourselves:

New communication technologies have created a karaoke world. … Practically no one is content any more to be just a spectator, reader, passive listener or viewer. Audience participation as well as the right to talk back – which includes non-expert reviewing of works or performances by trained and seasoned professionals — have become absolutely essential.

That La Stampa understands this is clear. Calabresi said:

We are drawing on user-generated content, seeking to unite and integrate it with our quality journalism. On social networks we are working to increase reader engagement in order to make them key players in the debate on our content.

He sounds remarkably like The Guardian’s own editor, Alan Rusbridger, telling an American interviewer that

We are putting our commentators in the same space as all our readers and letting them fight it out. … [R]eally, in this community of Guardian readers, there are a lot of intelligent, well-versed people actually traveling. So let’s open it up to them.

But those are just words, mere sentiments, at present. Until they are offered a financial stake and the possibility, some day, of sharing in any profits, those readers contributing comments and reporting to ‘opened up’ papers are simply supplying unpaid labour. Not, in our view, an operating scheme with much of a future.

When will some newspaper like La Stampa or The Guardian test the idea of sharing ownership and decision-making on a strictly experimental section of its site – as this blog has suggested before, more than once? They might take a cue from the adventurous ‘skunk works’ at the Harvard Business School testing online education.

One European interviewed by the London newspaper about the digital future, Stefan Niggemeier – an ex-Spiegel staffer who has worked both as an editor and publishing innovator — is part of a group of twenty-five German investigative journalists playing with financial schemes that do not rely on advertising: ‘We want to see if there’s a way of establishing a non-advertising-based model. Whether it will work, I don’t know, but I know it’s right to try it, even if it fails.’

Rusbridger is sixty. Niggemeier and Calabresi are both in their mid-forties. Even they might not be young enough to translate proposals and hypotheses into media’s clicking and whirring fully operational future.

Does copyright law turn art into commodities? part 2: copying China, here, is hardly the right road to take

‘Nonna’s teacups’ – the original (below, by MIL22) displays the Chinese colour sense, something missing from this uncomprehending adaptation

‘Nonna’s teacups’ – the original (below, by MIL22) displays the Chinese colour sense, something missing from this uncomprehending adaptation

chinese cups disarranged 22luckyseeds 9287353120_2a9a94b6cc_b

Surely America, supremely the land of individualists, is the most unlikely destroyer of copyright?

In the home of Thoreau, Walden Pond’s immortal hermit; of Gertrude Stein, so original that she revelled in her incomprehensibility – also the country that reveres the hard act to follow of a Janis Joplin flaring up, dying young, and leaving behind an inextinguishable brilliance – you might expect to read that copyright law is …

… concerned with the moral rights of authors, which are based on the author’s creative sense of self. Moral rights are the author’s right to protect his or her personal relationship with their work.

But no, those thoughts of a lawyer, Anna Spies, were published on an Australian website dedicated to discussions of intellectual property law. She was referring not to the American perspective on copyright, or the antipodean one, but to the historical view of ‘civil law countries in continental Europe.’

Today’s America — or certainly the one envisaged most enthusiastically by its youngest adults — apparently looks forward to adopting Chinese practices that do not, by long-established tradition, place any value on the shaping of work by a distinctive sensibility and the quirks in the exercise of a particular individual’s talent and skills.

This is not a little ironic. As post-Gutenberg’s last post showed, rich countries outside Asia have been showing scarcely any interest in digging down into the roots of Chinese culture and philosophy. Yet intelligent thinkers, with Americans in the lead, are making a case for replacing the glorification of creativity and originality that sparked and drove the Renaissance with deeply Chinese arguments in favour of wholesale imitation, extending to wide-ranging intellectual and commercial piracy. Last month, a Reuter’s blogger with a following among power-brokers was citing a respected scholarly journal when he rallied his fellow copyright opponents:

[L]ook at the Chinese YouTube, Youku, which is displacing television in large part because it has no copyright verification. As Chinese media companies evolve to take advantage of Youku, they will be much better placed to compete in the 21st Century than US companies which rely on copyright laws to keep consumers boxed in to increasingly-unnatural modes of consumption. […]

Chinese piracy also brings innovation within the grasp of a huge population of poorer Chinese, with long-term positive effects for all … [… from …] shanzhai — low-cost copies of items which would not be affordable otherwise.

Like so much else in China, the meaning of shanzhai is undergoing a drastic change. As The Wall Street Journal recently noted, “Once a term used to suggest something cheap or inferior, shanzhai now suggests to many a certain Chinese cleverness and ingenuity.” Indeed, Beijing seems to believe that shanzhai is something to cultivate. In 2009, an official from China’s National Copyright Administration declared that “shanzhai shows the cultural creativity of the common people.” He added, “It fits a market need and people like it”…

Might ‘Yay, shanzhai!’ … have replaced ‘The East is red!’ for sinophiles among those U.S. intellectuals bent on aligning themselves with the future? Anyone interested in reading the curious case for that in the blogger’s source, Foreign Affairs, is blocked by a paywall protecting …well, could you ever have guessed, copyright? This is so absurd, and what we have gleaned of Foreign Affairs’ endorsement of shanzhai so underwhelming, that we see no point in handing over $5. 

‘How the World Benefits from Chinese Piracy’ is the Reuters blogger’s title. Fine, bring it on … if – as he and some of his commenters (below his post) agree – the Chinese pirates’ targets are multinational pharmaceutical giants, or other obscenely profitable and dishonest corporations or business sectors. Unfortunately, it does not stop there, and both the Reuters blog and what we have gleaned of the Foreign Affairs essay fail to impress, for at least two reasons:

• Benjamin Franklin, the American founding father most admired for his inventiveness, is dragged in to sprinkle holy water on intellectual piracy because he ‘made a substantial sum from republishing the works of British authors without permission or payment.’ Surely that has to be reckoned as an act of aggression, not a feat of commercial genius? Franklin’s dislike of his transatlantic cousins is notorious. (See  ‘The fine and noble china vase, the British Empire …’ — or, for a contemporary perspective, ‘Ben Franklin Really Fucking Hated the British …’ in cracked.com.)

•  Once again, it seems, the greed of monster corporations in the music business has been spotlighted to justify depriving, of even their token crusts, the majority of artists and musicians getting by on their equivalents of Grub Street.

Foreign Affairssummary of the essay says:

Traditional music labels have decried the copying of recorded music, arguing that it discourages the composition and performance of new music. According to the authors, that is simply not the case: it is the traditional business model of the labels that is under threat, not the production of music. And copyright was conceived to protect creative activity, not particular business models.

By now, this line of attack on copyright is not merely unconvincing but verges on lazy and boring. Why not pour the mental energy into finding ways to separate the needs of creative artists from the exploitation of copyright by large corporations selling copies of works of art?

The ‘author’s creative sense of self’ to which Anna Spies refers in the Australian blog post at the start of this entry encapsulates what we sensed about an outstanding friend of this blog, as we watched Crofters, a marvel of documentary film-making about a small crofting community in the Scottish Highlands, shot in 1945.

Screenshots from the film ‘Crofters’ (1945) about everyday life in Achriesgill. Seated woman (below) is polishing an oil lamp, her source of night light. Director: Ralph Keene. National Library of Scotland.

Screenshots from the film ‘Crofters’ (1945) about everyday life in Achriesgill. Seated woman (below) is polishing an oil lamp, her source of night light. Director: Ralph Keene. National Library of Scotland.

Screenshots from the film +++Crofters+++(1945) about everyday life in Achriesgill. The seated woman is polishing an oil lamp, her source of night light. Director: Ralph Keene. National Library of Scotland.

Writing movingly about losing his mother, Agnes, in May, John Logan (or, to avert Google-fusion, John A. A. Logan) said on the Authors Electric  site that she was ‘the best person I ever knew’. She is the smallest girl in the party of schoolchildren following their teacher in our still photograph (above) and, her son has told post-Gutenberg, gave his work her enthusiastic, unqualified, unstinting support.

Listening to the lovely concision in the language of folk in Achriesgill, where she lived at that age, you realize that you have heard their echoes in the dialogue in John’s finest short stories, of which we have featured samples, here. In the film, someone is heard speculating about the destination of Nurse McKay, also the local midwife: ‘I wonder, now, where will it be she’s off to in her wee car this morning?’ A female voiceover, in footage of a woman cleaning a lamp: ‘I wonder, now, when will we get the electricity that there’s been so much talking about?’

The anti-copyright crowd insists that all art is ‘remix’ or ‘mashup’ trickery – a bizarre and anachronistic re-definition based on capacities for simulating artistic creation that were impossible before we were given today’s technological equipment. The words of long-dead artists are misconstrued for credibility (of the inattentive):

Although remix has always been an aspect of human culture the phenomenon takes on more significance in the digital age, because of the ease with which a creator of a new cultural artifact can “steal” to use the term from Stravinsky’s observation that all composers steal and the great composers steal the most. Music, text and images are easily transferred from one digital device to another especially because of the Internet which allows this phenomenon to take place on a global scale.

This remix culture means, apparently, that no artist deserves to expect to make anything like a living from his art (a subject that goes unmentioned in the movement’s manifestoes). But, like John’s, any work of literature or art is both saturated with and dictated by family and place – or their rejection; with psychological inheritances and consequences – indistinguishable, in other words, from personal experience and individuality.

It is from studying the techniques of artistic forebears that most arts workers learn how to shape this raw material, which bears the stamp of its influences. That is not the same as puffed up cut-and-paste exercises or shameless copying. Both the ability and opportunity to make use of gifts of personal history and talent are almost always hard-earned – or, as so many biographies testify, when seemingly effortless, can extract the steep price in misfortune that often follows success.

There are Chinese cultural traditions worthy of surpassing respect and even imitation. Why conflate bringing consumer goods — manufactured commodities — and prescription drugs within the reach of poor Chinese, with rights of artistic ownership, depriving all artists of the means to earn the occasional soupçon of calories – if not, as the internet pioneer Jaron Lanier insists, the chance to grow rich?

Why not distinguish between copyright protection for individual creators and corporations hawking the fruits of creativity? Why not help to make micropayments for artists routine — as unremarkable as online shopping? (See: ‘Do we need a campaign for micropayments to support “lyric perception”?’)

Does copyright law turn art into commodities? part 1: an answer with help from Albrecht Dürer, ARTICLE19, Salman Rushdie and Anthony Storr

Artists who can control copying with copyright have more creative freedom - photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

Artists who can control copying with copyright have more creative freedom
– photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

Albrecht Dürer: self-portrait, aged 13

Albrecht Dürer: self-portrait, aged 13

How does newness enter the world?

Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie, 2012

Dear Copyright-Haters,

How about picketing Tupperware?  Yes, … we are perfectly serious. Imagine the Facebook updates of yourselves holding giant sock-it-to-‘em placards shouting, ‘STOP COMMODIFICATION NOW!’ … What’s that? … Right. How, you ask, would you store your left-over microwaveable meals in this post-cooking age without plastic boxes so much alike that, even with brand names, they are virtual commodities? You could try porcelain bowls covered with plates or tin foil for an alternative – but no, you say, no one does that any more … muttering to yourselves, inaudibly, ‘Idiot!

We’ve been hearing that you hate commodification. After last week’s post with Jaron Lanier warning about the consequences for other professions of destroying artists’ rights to control the use of their work, a friend emailed us to say that enemies of copyright are not playing Scrooge when you refuse to contribute even micropayments to enjoy art. (Most of you agree merrily with, eg., the blithe prediction by the editor of Wired: ‘ I think most music will soon be free, …’).

The problem, this friend explained, is that you fear the commodification of the arts. We have heard similar thoughts expressed as, more or less, this: ‘Why should a musician get to charge every time he or she sells a replica of a single performance on cheap plastic CDs over and over again – and get obscenely rich from the proceeds, in some cases?’ Well. Just as a thought experiment, how about putting music CDs lower down on your hit list and starting with obvious horrors – those containers made of processed petroleum, clogging landfill in their millions? One day last month, Tupperware’s share price went rocketing into the heavens – hitting ‘a new 52-week high,’ we noticed. Now, that’s encouragement for commodification!

Why pick on artists instead of finding some way to hijack the profits from  (comparatively) mindless replication elsewhere? The new digital technologies were supposed to relieve some of the pain and hardship behind the centuries-old ‘starving artist’ cliché. They introduced the possibility of financial independence for more artists than ever before — linked to their ability to control how they work, and own the results. By, for instance, recording and distributing their own musical performances; or publishing or exhibiting their e-books, paintings, sculpture, and so on.

On the blog of The New York Review of Books, there is a perfect example from medieval Europe of an artist using new technology as an aid and spur to artistic independence, creativity and an evolutionary leap in drawing and painting. About the sublime German, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), whom the Wikipedia reasonably pegs as ‘the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance,’ the NYRB blogger Andrew Butterfield writes:

Dürer was perhaps the first artist in history to work primarily at his own direction, rather than on commission and at the pleasure of princes and other exigent patrons. The change was made possible by his concentration on printmaking rather than painting as his main artistic and commercial endeavor. Most paintings of this time, such as altarpieces, were made for well-established religious or civic purposes, and the patrons and other viewers had specific needs and strong expectations regarding both what was depicted and how it was represented. But printmaking was a completely new medium, little beholden to tradition. Even when treating Biblical themes, Dürer was comparatively free to pursue a more personal investigation of subject matter.

The painters of Dürer’s time who specialised in portraiture worked like – shall we say, analogue precursors of photo-editing software, who did all the retouching in the act of image-creation rather than after it. The most talented of them could grow rich themselves by following the conventions for flattering their powerful, wealthy subjects in oils – but with their creativity as constrained as the ‘lotus feet’ tortured into existence by foot-binding. Printmaking allowed Dürer  to flout those rules to develop an entirely new, realistic style in portraiture:

Typically portraiture was honorific and meant to represent the exemplary virtues of the person shown; Dürer instead often sought to capture the idiosyncratic and psychological characteristics of the people he portrayed. He was fascinated with the close scrutiny of dark and brooding emotion.

The Wikipedia explains the effect of his independence:

Dürer exerted a huge influence on the artists of succeeding generations, especially in printmaking, the medium through which his contemporaries mostly experienced his art, as his paintings were predominately in private collections located in only a few cities. His success in spreading his reputation across Europe through prints were undoubtedly an inspiration for major artists such as Raphael, Titian, and Parmigianino, all of whom collaborated with printmakers in order to promote and distribute their work.

Copyright laws were one invention that accompanied the replication that the printing press and printmaking introduced. Before reproducibility could be taken for granted, only the wealthy could afford to adorn their walls with the work of painters; after it, peasants could have their own woodcuts of saints and angels.

This makes your association of copyright with elitism, o copyright-smashers – and your attempts to cast artistic ownership as stifling or destructive of creativity — alarmingly batty, to say the least.

ARTICLE19’s excellent prescriptions for bloggers’ rights — putting them on a par with those of professional journalists — were recently the subject of a post in this spot. This same organisation has also made thoughtful recommendations for the evolution of copyright laws in another paper. Perfectly in keeping with what copyright allowed Durer to do, this document says:

Freedom of expression and copyright are complementary inasmuch as the purpose of copyright is the promotion of literary, musical and artistic creativity, the enrichment of cultural heritage and the dissemination of knowledge and information goods to the general public.

Some of us can only pray that protecting copyright as its rules are revised for the digital age will free arts workers from paymasters. From the domain of musical composition, the psychologist Anthony Storr offers in The Dynamics of Creation (1972) an elegant example of what financial dependence costs creativity:

Some very good music has been written for film … but the limitations imposed by having to tie the music strictly to the action means that the composer cannot choose for himself a vital dimension of the composition, its length. Most composers, therefore, rate film music as ‘incidental’ music, and separate it sharply from original compositions which truly reflect their own creative personality.

… In the last few days, we have learnt from Salman Rushdie’s riveting autobiography, Joseph Anton, about ARTICLE19’s crucial support in his years of enforced hiding from assassins trying to carry out his death sentence, the Iranian fatwa. Curiosity about this organisation’s backers led us to discover that these include Britain’s Foreign Office, the Department for International Aid (DFID) / UKAID, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the European Commission, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Open Society Institute (OSI), the Ford Foundation, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and in Silicon Valley, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

That was a real comfort – knowing of the existence of an organisation with international financing that advocates both blogging as a form of free speech and copyright protection.

Now about your Tupperware march …

… over to you,

post-Gutenberg