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Amour__Discipline on 04/22/2012 at 11:54PM

Amour & Discipline's Gift Economy Model Breathtaking Massive Manifesto

CULTURE SHARING

For a century, production and distribution of recorded music followed a linear path : from the musician to the ears of the audience, from the manufacturing to the distribution, a lot of commercial middlemen were necessary. Big corporations controlled most aspects of this process.

In the meanwhile, indie labels slowly built alternative ways to produce music, while the cassette tape (1963) and the CD-R (1995) allowed people to copy and share recorded music with their friends and close circles.

Then in 1999, Peer-to-peer (P2P) networks changed the rules.

Suddenly, people were able to share music worldwide without any commercial intent. Myriads of out-of-print releases were instantly available again. It made no big technical difference whether 10 or 10,000 people downloaded a record, whether they lived in Chicago or Kuala Lumpur. It became possible to listen to all the music ever recorded at no other cost than an access to a computer and to the Internet, instead of buying a few CDs a month.

Music (and then movies, comics, etc.) went from the reign of scarce goods to the reign of infinite goods : once the original is made, there are no marginal costs to make a digital copy and distribute it. Whether we like it or not, shifting from the economics of scarcity to the economics of abundance is a change in paradigm bearing huge consequences :

  1. Technology and people made Global Culture Sharing possible. We don’t want to use the weird expression “file sharing”, which designates the packaging, not the content (when someone lends you a book, no one would call it “paper sharing”). Non-commercial distribution of culture on a planetary scale became a reality. This is a step as big as the invention of the printing press.
  2. But a crucial question has emerged (among others) : How can works of art and culture be financed if everyone is able to copy and share them?

Instead of calmly discussing this issue, a few big corporations decided to stigmatize people sharing culture as though they were criminals. You’ve never seen their face, they watch you at night and they know what is good for you : they are the Corporate Justice League. Copying has indeed increased exponentially since the dawn of the digital era, but these corporations want us to forget that the very act of copying has always existed, through many forms and within various technological environments, and is thus an integral part of being human.

The question cannot be “how can we stop it?” but “how can we handle it?” But hey, it’s difficult to get someone to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it — think about copyist monks discovering the printing press. So major record labels, represented by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), teamed up with Hollywood in order to present us an astounding musical, The War on Sharing.

That said, we won’t deny that there are people who share culture without caring about the bands whose music they eagerly download. There is a parallel between corporations at war with sharing and people who take universal culture sharing for granted and don’t see the necessity of combining it with some kind of support : they are basically bound together by the same greed and selfishness. But irresponsible culture sharers are a minority. Studies prove that people who download music illegally also spend more money on music than anyone else. And, without doubt, many people would appreciate a system allowing to both share and sustain creation.

 

THE CORPORATE JUSTICE LEAGUE IN “THE WAR ON SHARING”

The Corporate Justice League tells us that copyright must be reinforced and that culture sharing should be demonized, for the sake of artistic creation.

But how do they actually treat artists ?

To answer this weighty question, we won’t dwell on the countless swindling stories which enliven the music industry. Instead, let us bring up a few mundane figures. When we buy a CD at a store, a major label artist earns around 10% of the retail price (around 30% goes to the store, around 60% goes to the label/distributor). Admittedly, real costs are involved : the CD and its packaging have to be manufactured, trucks have to transport it, the store has to pay a rent… In the end, CDs still belong to the realm of scarce goods.

But in the realm of infinite goods, the artist should logically earn much more ! So, how much does a major label artist earn when you purchase a 0.99 dollar song on Itunes? 8 cents. Yes.
This is the situation they want to maintain. This is why they struggle, are ready to manipulate, sue, restrict fundamental liberties.

The first act of the War on Sharing musical is propaganda. A big part of it rests on semantics: Steal, Counterfeit or Piracy instead of Copy and Share, for example.
Using the words Counterfeit and Piracy deliberately blurs the difference between making a copy for profit and making a copy for non-commercial purposes. But sharing cultural goods is obviously different from mass-manufacturing handbags or attacking and plundering boats. Using the word Steal helps turn a complex issue into a simplistic one : « Hey guys, copying files is the same thing as passing by a restaurant, spotting an appetizing meal, going in and taking it without paying ». But it’s not.

To make our point, we’ll use the same analogy : I’m going to a restaurant. In my pocket, I have a technological device called the Amazing Molecular Reconfiguration Magic Box. Yes. I see a wonderful meal, and then I use the Magic Box to recreate the exact same meal. But hey, guess what, the original meal is still on the table.

It sure raises a lot of ethical questions, a big one being “how is the cook going to pay his rent ?”. But did I steal food, or did I copy it ? Stealing means “the unauthorised taking of someone else’s property with the intent to deprive the owner of that property” : if I steal your bicycle, you’ll have to take the bus. If we copy food with the Magic Box and share it, there is no deprivation, we just have to find new ways to support the cook.
Sadly, such a Magic Box providing unlimited food access to the whole planet doesn’t exist yet. Do you think restaurant owners would sue its inventor ?

Of course, food and culture are not equally important. But culture can’t be reduced to Entertainment : it is also a means of intellectual emancipation and its access shouldn’t be controlled by big corporations.
One must admit that the Corporate Justice League’s lexical battle is quite successful. We often use their words. The fact that a lot of independent musicians and labels use these language tricks is an ideological triumph of breathtaking proportions for corporate power. We also often confuse things which are very different (copyright, patents and trademarks are mixed in the vague expression “Intellectual Property“).
Until now, they have also managed to dismiss any real debate about the actual copyright system as crypto-stalinist rantings. Fortunately, more and more people realize it has to be questioned : for instance, Creative Commons are a set of free licences allowing authors to protect their creation without stifling the diffusion of culture. Even the European Commissioner for Digital Agenda admits that the actual copyright is failing to financially reward artists…

The rest of their propaganda is a massive failure. In France, everyone laughs at Hadopi ads. In the US, recent campaigns have shown a great lack of intellectual honesty and understanding of what is at stake : sharing files would be like taking money off the hat of a street artist, or endorsing child labor and criminal cartels.
Unsurprisingly, the number of people sharing culture has continued to grow, and they still don’t consider themselves as criminals.

The second step is taking legal action :

  1. Individuals sued and fined hundreds of thousands of dollars because they have shared a few files. We don’t feel the need to argue, this “strategy” is absurd and inefficient — even the former head of the RIAA admits it.
  2. Napster, Kazaa, Audiogalaxy, Grokster, Morpheus, Limewire, or recently Megaupload : all were taken down, while the Pirate Bay, Iso Hunt or eMule suffered severe legal attacks.

Did people stop copying and sharing ?

The third act is, well, convincing governments to muzzle the Internet. SOPA, ACTA, Hadopi… This is a crucial issue and tons of articles about it can be found here or here or here. And here is a good video. Thanks to Internet protests, SOPA and PIPA have been delayed, but ACTA is alive and well, and rest assured that other similar bills will turn up soon. The problem is that these actions go far beyond culture sharing. They imply pervasive scrutiny, monitoring, censorship, and weaken the protection of political and civil rights. Those who argue against online sharing should be aware that it is impossible to reduce it without increasing drastic surveillance and policing out of proportion — which they will, in turn, probably regret. It is therefore reasonable to ask ourselves : Is it worth it? Shouldn’t we, at least, try out alternatives?

 

UNCERTAINTY IN THE MODERN WORLD

All the music in the world is now available for free, and more and more people only listen to digital music. We share it with our friends via emails, links, usb sticks, etc. Universal culture sharing is provided by non-commercial P2P networks and commercial direct download services that don’t give a cent to artists nor to labels. Well, most of these cyberlockers aren’t perky for now.

In the meantime, two kinds of commercial initiatives transferring money to “right holders” have emerged :

  1. Those who act as if music still belonged to scarce goods, i.e. à la carte download services such as Itunes. Most of these services take the same kind of cut physical stores do, that is to say around 30%. Most of the time, they don’t deal directly with indie bands/labels, which means they have to go through a digital distributor taking a fixed annual fee and/or a 10 to 30% cut. Fortunately, good alternatives such as Bandcamp exist (they directly deal with indie bands and labels and just take a 15% cut). However, we’re not convinced that any centralized à la carte download service is the ultimate solution, because it still considers digital culture as a scarce good. We all use devices that can store dozens of thousands of songs, yet most of us can’t afford to fill these devices with legally-purchased music only. In a few years time, when we’ll be able to store all the music ever recorded and all the books ever written in a hard disk as tiny as a fingernail, it will probably seem more and more strange to buy digital culture products one at a time.
  2. Those who integrate a distorted version of culture sharing and think it must be ruled by big corporations : streaming services such as Spotify. If you stream a song by a major label artist, they will earn much more per stream than an indie artist would. Spotify is very vague about this and doesn’t disclose any figures (they have signed Non-Disclosure-Agreements with everyone involved). However, some have surfaced : on average, if you listen to a song 100 times on Spotify, an indie band will earn around 20 cents. And don’t forget : when you stop your subscription, you end up with nothing.

Among other concerns, these initiatives don’t solve the critical question of decently funding artistic creation because :

  1. they pretend Global Culture Sharing never happened
  2. big corporations keep laying down the law
  3. many middlemen are still involved

We think digital ways of circulation should also generate new kinds of support : it is necessary to give something back to people and projects we care about, even if material goods are not involved anymore. We’re not saying “all artists should make a living from their creativity” — it has never been the case nor will it be for 99% of interesting artists. But creation does cost money.
So, why not directly support those who create music and/or those who really help to produce it?

 

GIFT ECONOMY, AMOUR & DISCIPLINE

This is what we’re experimenting with this donation platform. We don’t know how many people will decide to use A&D. Well, that depends on you. And it is certainly a long-term process. But we think that alternatives should not rest on coercive (i.e. governments) and mercantile (i.e. corporations) methods, and that A&D can be useful to promote two crucial and inseparable points :

  1. Culture Sharing is essential and legitimate
  2. We can and we must find new ways to support independent authors and producers, so that the aforementioned fact won’t cast them in the sewers where they will starve alone

 The backbone of A&D is not charity nor guilt, it is Gift Economy. Gift Economy is about common decency, responsibility and being conscious of being part of a community.

Gift Economy ruled ancient societies, and was theorized by blazing anthropologists such as Marcel Mauss or Karl Polanyi. They proved that the capitalist vision of human nature which implies that we’re all condemned to be suspicious and selfish individuals driven by our greed is scientifically wrong.
The universal assumption of market economy enthusiasts is that what essentially drives human beings is a desire to maximize their pleasure, comfort and material possessions, and that all significant human interactions can thus be analyzed in market terms.

Marcel Mauss has shown in his essay The Gift that in ancient societies, economic life was based on utterly different principles: most objects would move back and forth as gifts. Such gift economies could on occasion become highly competitive, but when they did it was the opposite way from our own : instead of competing to see who could accumulate the most, the winners were the ones who gave the most away.
It may all seem quite exotic. But how odd is it, really? Nowadays, Gift Economy still persists: if you give me a present for my birthday, or if you invite me to dinner, I’ll reciprocate. Not necessarily in an identical or immediate way, but there’s a good chance I’ll be grateful and will give you something in return, someday. These are examples of universal human feelings which are somehow discounted in our own society, but used to be the very basis of the economic system of former communities.
Karl Polanyi pursued Mauss’s research and demonstrated how free market economy, which seems so natural to us, is in fact a social construction.

Jeremy Rifkin, in his 2010 book The Empathic Civilization gathered an impressive amount of scientific data about recent discoveries in brain science and child development that are forcing us to rethink human nature. Biologists and cognitive neuroscientists have notably discovered mirror-neurons that allow human beings and other species to feel and experience another’s situation as if it were one’s own. We’re not only self-centered and materialistic beings, but also the most social of animals and need cooperation and companionship with our fellows.
Jeremy Rifkin adds scientific evidence to the fact that every society entails a common decency (in George Orwell’s terminology), a moral minimum, without which men would be unable to live together. It obviously manifests itself in various ways, depending on time and place, but Marcel Mauss has highlighted its universal conditions. The principle of all morality/ethics rests on a threefold obligation :

  1. to receive (being able to take a gift as a gift, not as something owed)
  2. to give back (being capable of gratitude)

We think it is crucial to question the prevailing and pessimistic conception of human nature, and to redefine the importance that empathy, Gift Economy and common decency should have in our societies.

 

TEMPORARY EPILOGUE

Of course, we don’t claim that A&D is the ultimate solution. Good ways to support bands/labels already exist, and important models have yet to be tested. For example, the Creative Contribution and the Global Patronage projects.
Both want to simultaneously recognize non-market exchanges over the Internet and fund creation, by introducing a contribution which would be paid by Internet broadband subscribers.
The Creative Contribution suggests that distribution of money be based on use (the more a song is listened, the more money the artist will receive), while Global Patronage suggests it be based on choice (each Internet user decides which artists he wants to support). A&D can be compared to a foetal DIY version of the Global Patronage project.

Both approaches acknowledge digitized cultural products are infinite goods, calling for a global reconciliation between culture sharing and financing. Both are technically feasible. These proposals should inspire authors, producers, audience, and governments. The present situation urges policy makers to consider that current laws, as in many other fields, don’t represent the interests of 99% of the population :

  1. The current copyright system has to be questioned. Making clear that copyright should solely regulate commercial, intent-to-profit activity would be a first step.
  2. Non-commercial Culture Sharing has to be legalized.
  3. New ways to support culture financing have to be implemented
  4. DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) has to be outlawed
  5. Net neutrality must be guaranteed.
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