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wWednesday, August 14, 2002

Slouching Towards Hollywood: Creative Livelihood in an Economy of Verbs - John Perry Barlow


Slouching Towards Hollywood

Editors Note: This article has been placed in our articles section, here.

On Wednesday (8-14) morning Stoned Out Loud's publisher emailed John Perry Barlow, co-Founder and Vice Chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and author of "Napster.com and the Death of the Music Business", asking permission to reprint it as it appeared on Technocrat.net (Technocrat has temporarily left the room). He also asked for contributed columns. A couple of hours later, this came in. Stoned out Loud is proud to present You with this article. Thank You John.
-g.moss

Slouching Towards Hollywood
Creative Livelihood in an Economy of Verbs
"By" John Perry Barlow



An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has
come.
- Victor Hugo


The great cultural war has broken out at last.

Long-awaited by some and a nasty surprise to others, the conflict between the Industrial Period and the Virtual Age is now engaged in earnest, thanks to the modestly conceived but paradigm-shattering thing called Napster.

What Napster's first realization of global peer-to-peer networking made inevitable is not so different from what happened when the American colonists realized that the conditions of their New World were sufficiently different from those of ancient England that they would be obliged to cast off the Crown before they could develop an economy natural to their environment. For the settlers of cyberspace, the "shot heard 'round the world" was fired on July 26 by Judge Marilyn Patel when she enjoined Napster and thereby sought to silence the cacophonous free market of expression already teeming with over 20 million directly-wired music lovers.

Despite the stay immediately granted the Napsterians, her decree transformed an evolving economy into a cause, and turned millions of politically apathetic youngsters into electronic Hezbollah. Neither the best efforts of Judge Patel - nor those of the Porsche-driving executives of the Recording Industry Association of America, the Congress they own, or the sleek legal defenders of existing copyright law - will alter this simple fact: No law can be successfully imposed on a huge population that does not morally support it, and possesses many easy means for its invisible evasion.

To put it mildly, the entertainment industry geriatrics didn't see it coming. They figured the Internet presented about as serious an obstacle to their infotainment empire as ham radio had to NBC. Even after that assumption was shattered, they remained serene as sunning crocodiles. After all, they still "owned" all that stuff they call "content." That it might soon become possible for anyone with a PC to effortlessly and perfectly reproduce their "property" and distribute it to all humanity troubled them little.

But then along came Napster. Or, more to the point, along came the real Internet, an instantaneous network that endows any acne-faced kid with a distributive range equal to Time-Warner's. Moreover, those were kids who don't give a flying byte about the existing legal battlements, and a lot of them possess decryption skills easily sufficient to crack whatever lame code the entertainment industry might wrap around "their" goods.

Practically every traditional pundit who's commented on the Napster case has at some point furrowed his telegenic brow and asked, "Is the genie out of the bottle?" A better question would be, "Is there a bottle?" No. There isn't.

Which is not to say the industry won't keep trying to create one. In addition to ludicrous (and probably unconstitutional) edicts like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the industry is placing a lot of faith in new cryptographic solutions. But before they waste a lot more time on their last algorithmic vessels, they might consider the ones they've designed so far. These include such systems as DivX, SDMI, and CSS - the DVD encryption standard, which has sparked its own legal hostilities on the Eastern Front, the New York court of Judge Lewis Kaplan.

Here's the present score: DivX was still-born, SDMI will never be born owing to the wrangling of its corporate parents, and DeCSS (the DVD decryptor) is spreading at a rate that will not slow even in the unlikely event that the Motion Picture Association of America prevails with its current lawsuits aimed at declaring it a prohibited form of speech. Outside Kaplan's Federal Court in New York City, where the Electronic Frontier Foundation has been defending three electronic distributors of DeCSS, nose-ringed kids sell T-shirts with its code silk-screened on them.

The last time technical copy protection was widely attempted - remember when most software was copy-protected? - it failed in the marketplace, and failed miserably. Earlier bans on reproductive technologies have also failed. Even though they are exceptionally slow learners, entertainment executives will eventually realize what they should have learned long ago: The free proliferation of expression does not decrease its commercial value. It increases it. It would serve them far better to encourage it.

The war is on, all right, but to my mind, it's over. The future will win. There will be no property in cyberspace. Behold DotCommunism. (And dig it, ye talented, since it will enrich you.) It's a pity that the entertainment industry is too wedged in the past to recognize this, as they will thereby require us to fight this war anyway. So we will all enrich lawyers with a fortune that could be spent fostering and distributing creativity. And we will be forced to watch a few pointless public executions - Shawn Fanning's cross awaits - when we could be employing such condemned genius in the service of a greater good.

As the inevitable unfolds, the real challenge arises: It's one thing to win a revolution and quite another to govern its consequences. How, in the absence of laws that turn thoughts into things, will we be assured payment for the work we do with our minds? Must the talented all start looking for day jobs?

Nope. Why should we? Most day jobs, at least in developed economies, already consist of mind work. The vast majority of us live by our wits now, producing "verbs" - that is, ideas - rather than such "nouns" as automobiles or toasters. Doctors, architects, executives, consultants, receptionists, televangelists, and, even, unfortunately, lawyers all manage to survive economically without "owning" their cognition.

I take further comfort in the fact that the human species managed to produce pretty decent creative work during the 5,000 years that preceded 1709, when John Locke pushed the Statute of Anne, the world's first copyright law, through the House of Lords.

Sophocles, Dante, Da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, Cervantes, Bach - all found reasons to get out of bed in the morning without expecting to own the works they would create during the day ahead.

Even during the zenith of copyright, we got some pretty useful stuff out of Benoit Mandelbrot, Vint Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee, Marc Andresson, and Linus Torvalds, none of whom did their world-morphing work with royalties in mind. And then there are all those great musicians of the last 50 years who went on making music even after they discovered that the record companies got to keep all the money.

Nor can I resist trotting out, one last time, the horse I rode back in 1994, when I explored these issues in a Wired article called "The Economy of Ideas," The Grateful Dead. The Dead, for whom I once wrote songs, learned by accident that if we let fans tape our concerts and freely reproduce those tapes - "stealing" our intellectual "property" just like those heinous Napsterites - the tapes would become a marketing virus that would spawn enough Deadheads to fill any stadium in America. Even though Deadheads had free recordings that were better than our commercial albums, fans still went out and bought records in such quantity that most of them eventually went platinum.

My opponents always dismiss this example as a special case. But it's not. Here are a couple of others closer to Hollywood. Jack Valenti, head of the MPAA and leader of the fight against DeCSS, kept VCRs out America for 5 years, convinced they would kill the film industry. Eventually the wall came down. What followed reversed his expectations (not that he seems to have learned from the experience).

Despite the ubiquity of VCRs, more people go to the movies than ever and videocassette rentals and sales account for nearly 70 percent of his industry's income.

The RIAA is unalterably convinced that toe easy availability of freely downloadable commercial songs will bring on the apocalypse, and yet, during the two years since MP3 music began flooding the Net, CD sales have risen by 20 percent.

Finally, after giving up on copy protection, the software industry expected that widespread piracy would surely occur. And it did. I often ask audiences how many of them can honestly say they have no unauthorized software on their hard drives. Most people don't raise their hands. And yet, the software industry is booming. Why? Because the more a program is pirated, the more likely it is to become a standard. Once it becomes a standard, it is a great deal more convenient to enter into a long-term service relationship with the vendor.

All these examples point to the same conclusion: non-commercial distribution of information increases the sale of commercial
information. Abundance breeds abundance.

This is precisely contrary to what happens in a physical economy. When you're selling nouns, there is an undeniable relationship between scarcity and value. Adam Smith figured that out a long time ago. But in an economy of verbs, the inverse applies. There is a relationship between familiarity and value. For ideas, fame is fortune. And nothing makes you famous faster than an audience willing to distribute your work for free.

All the same, there remains a general and passionate belief that, in the absence of copyright, artists and other creative people will no longer be compensated. I'm forever accused of being an anti-materialistic hippie who thinks we should all be create for the Greater Good of Mankind and lead lives of ascetic service. If only I were so noble. While I do believe that most genuine artists are primarily motivated by the joys of creation, I also believe we will be more productive if we don't have to work a second job to support our art habit. Think of how many more poems Wallace Stevens could have written if he hadn't been forced to run an insurance company to support his "hobby."

Following the death of copyright, I believe our interests will be assured instead by the following practical values: relationship, convenience, interactivity, service, and ethics.

Before I go further in explaining what I mean, let me state a creed: Art is a service, not a product. Created beauty is a relationship, and a relationship with the Holy at that. To reduce such work to "content" is like praying in swear words. End of sermon. Back to business.

The economic model that supported most of the ancient masters I named above (and thousands more like them) was patronage, whether endowed by a wealthy individual, a religious institution, a university, a corporation, or, by the instrument of governmental support, society as a whole.

Patronage is both a relationship and a service. It is a relationship that supported genius during the Renaissance and supports it today.

Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Botticelli all shared the support of both the Medicis and, through Pope Leo X, the Catholic Church. Bach had a series of patrons, most notably the Duke of Weimar. Dante served as a politician and diplomat for the Church and a variety of Tuscan aristocrats. I could go on, but I can already hear you saying, "Surely this fool doesn't expect the return of patronage."

But patronage never went away. It just changed its appearance. Marc Andresson was a beneficiary of the "patronage" of the National Center for Supercomputer Applications when he created Mosaic; CERN was a patron to Tim Berners-Lee while he created the World Wide Web. DARPA was Vint Cerf's benefactor; IBM was Mandelbrot's.

"Aha!" you say, "but IBM is a corporation. They profited from the intellectual property Mandelbrot created." Maybe, but so did the rest of us. While IBM would patent air and water if it could, I don't believe it ever attempted to file a patent on fractal geometry.

Relationship, along with service, is at the heart of what supports all sorts of other modern, though more anonymous, "knowledge workers." Doctors are economically protected by a relationship with their patients, architects with their clients, executives with their corporations. Even copyright lawyers wouldn't find it advantageous to copyright their briefs, since they rip one another off so flagrantly. Copy and paste is second only to paranoia in being is the best thing that ever happened to the legal profession.

In general, if you substitute "relationship" for "property," you begin to understand why a digitized information economy can work fine in the absence of enforceable property law. Cyberspace is unreal estate. Relationships are its geology.

Convenience is another important factor in the future compensation of creation. The reason that video didn't kill the movie star is that it's simply more convenient to rent a video than to copy one. Software is easy to copy, of course, but software piracy hasn't impoverished Bill Gates, because in the long run it's more convenient to enter into a relationship with Microsoft if you want to use their products. It's certainly more convenient to get technical support if you have a real serial number when you finally get the support person on the phone. And that serial number is not a thing. It's a contract. It is the symbol of a relationship.

Think of how the emerging digital conveniences will empower musicians, photographers, filmmakers, and writers when you can click on an icon, upload a cyber-dime into their accounts, and download their latest songs, images, films, or chapters, all without the barbaric inconvenience currently imposed by the entertainment industry.

Interactivity is also central to the future of creation. Performance is a form of interaction. The reason Deadheads went to concerts instead of just listening to free tapes was that they wanted to interact with the band in Meatspace. The more people knew what our concerts sounded like, the more people wanted to experience them.

I enjoy a similar benefit in my current incarnation. I'm reasonably well-paid to write, despite the fact that I put most of my work on the Net before it can be printed, but I'm paid a lot more to speak, and more still to consult, since my real value lies in something that can't be stolen from me - my point of view. A unique and passionate viewpoint is more valuable in a conversation than the one-way broadcast of words. And the more my words self-replicate on the Net, the more I can charge for symmetrical interaction.

Finally, there is the role of ethics. (I can hear you snickering already.) But hey, people actually do feel inclined to reward creative value if it's not too inconvenient. As Courtney Love said recently in a brilliant blast at the music industry: "I'm a waitress. I work for tips." She's right. People want to pay her because they like her work. Indeed, actual waitpeople get by even though the people they serve are under no legal obligation to tip them. They tip them because it's the right thing to do.

I believe that, in the practical absence of law, ethics are going to make a major comeback in cyberspace. In an environment of dense connection where much of what we do and say is recorded, preserved, and easily discovered, ethical behavior becomes less a matter of self-imposed virtue and more a matter of horizontal social enforcement. (Think of how much better you tip when everyone at the table can watch you total the credit card slip.)

Besides, the more connected we become, the more obvious it is that we're all in this thing together. If I don't pay for the light of your creation, it goes out and the place gets dimmer. If no one pays, we're all in the dark. In cyberspace, it becomes increasingly obvious that what goes around comes around. What has been an ideal become a sensible business practice.

Think of cyberspace as an ecosystem, because it is one. It is a great rain forest of those life forms called ideas, which, like organisms - those patterns of self-reproducing, evolving, adaptive information that express themselves in skeins of carbon - require one another to exist. Imagine the challenge of trying to write a song if you'd never heard one.

As in biology, what has lived before becomes the compost from which new shoots spring forth. Moreover, when you buy - or, for that matter, "steal" - an idea that first took form in my head, it remains where it grew and you in no way lessen its value by sharing it. On the contrary, mine becomes more valuable, since in the informational space between your interpretation of it and mine, new species can grow. The more such spaces exist, the more fertile is the greater ecology of mind.

I can also imagine the great electronic nervous system producing entirely new models of creative worth where value resides not in the artifact, which is static and dead, but in the real art - the living process that bore it. I would have given a lot to be present as, say, the Beatles grew their songs. I'd have paid even more to have actually participated in some small way. Part of the reason Deadheads were so obsessed with live concerts was that they did participate in some weird, mysterious way. They were allowed the intimacy of seeing the larval beginnings of a song flop out onstage, wet and ugly, and they would help nurture its growth.

Instead of bottles of dead "content," I imagine electronically defined zones of creative interactions, where minds residing in bodies scattered all over the planet are admitted, either by subscription or a ticket at a time, into the real-time presence of the verb I call art.

For example, I imagine actual storytelling making a comeback. Storytelling, unlike the one-way, asymmetrical thing that goes by that name in Hollywood, is highly participatory. Instead further hypnotizing the passive TV viewer, awash in electrons and Budweiser, I imagine new audiences happily paying for engagement with the bard.

This scenario doesn't require much imagination, since it's what happens in the presence good public speaker now. The best of them don't talk at the audience, but rather converse with them, creating a sanctuary of permission where something real and personal can happen.

People will also pay to get first crack at the fresh stuff, just as Stephen King is proving by serializing novels on the Web. Dickens demonstrated the efficiency of this system long ago. Unruly dockside mobs greeted the ship bearing the last chapter of Great Expectations. They paid considerable premiums for copies of the magazine in which it was being serialized. Though Dickens was irritated that the Americans ignored his British copyright, he adapted and devised a way to get paid anyway. The artists and writers of the future will adapt to practical possibility. Many already have done so. They are, after all, creative people.

Best of all, think of how much more money there will be for the truly creative when the truly cynical have been dealt out of the game. Once we have all given up regarding our ideas as a form of property, the entertainment industry will no longer have anything to steal from us. Meet the new boss: no boss.

But enough about the money. I could go on at far greater length about economic models, both demonstrated and speculative, but the fact remains, we don't know jack about what's eventually going to work in the new ecosystem we're growing. If one compares the evolution of Industry to the information economy now slouching through cyberspace to be born, we are metaphorically closer to the era of Eli Whitney than Henry Ford's. This would be a lousy time to lock in our future by imposing on it a set of legal, commercial, and aesthetic principles that were merely the best our ancestors could do with the tools they had.

The fact that those principles might artificially extend the longevity of some institutions and people who have shamelessly fed on the creative for over a century does not trouble me. They wouldn't deserve to survive even if they still had practical value.

We've won the revolution. It's all over but the litigation. While that drags on, let us think about our real mission: ancestry. We have a profound responsibility to employ the tools freshly available to us to be better ancestors. With technology, we are building the foundations of a social architecture that may endure a very long time. What we do now will likely determine the productivity and freedom of artists 20 generations yet un-born. What we do now will determine whether the great works of the last century rot embedded in the corpses of the their former distributors, forever lost to our descendents.

Let us digitize every work of mind we love and endow it with permanent virtual life, whatever the tightening noose of law may dictate.

Let us not sacrifice a free future to preserve a little longer the slavery of the past.

--
John Perry Barlow, Cognitive Dissident
Co-Founder & Vice Chairman, Electronic Frontier Foundation
Berkman Fellow, Harvard Law School



posted by gathering moss at 7:07 PM





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