Alexandria: a new model

21 marzo, 2013 § Deja un comentario

A couple of years ago, around the time when setting my iPod on “shuffle” started to become a really scary idea, I saw a TED talk that left me quite impressed. Some guy named Brewster Kahle explains how incredibly cheap and feasible it is to digitize all the published works of mankind in a free virtual library. We are talking about all the books ever written, all the albums, all the films ​​and even every show aired on TV. Diderot would have fainted watching this talk. In retrospect this story is a turning point for me. Access to information on the Internet went from being a great comfort to something so moving that my little eyes fill with tears just thinking about it.


Since then I have had many discussions with friends about the problem of copyright laws. While we greatly value the access to knowledge, entertainment and art, we always find the same obstacle. To state the obvious: the authors of all this cultural production have to make a living and if their works are no longer a source of income, it is unlikely that many of them would be able to continue. People who publish creative works do so because they like to. Is true, however, that time and effort are required for this, and whether or not a motivation in itself, money enables both. If we can’t make a living out of writing books or doing other types of creative works, only those that already have enough money to not work will be full-time authors.


At some point I thought that the solution may be that artists also engage in other activities that are part of their field. Musicians, for example, now make more money from concerts than from CD sales. But this solution is not satisfactory, among other things, because not all fields are easily accommodated. What would regular and TV writers do? Not to mention actors, producers and so on. We must solve the problem that we are left with due to the inevitable devaluation of all that now can be replicated endlessly. Even if we think in terms of patronage, it is important that the production of creative work remains as a profession. After that we can freely devote ourselves to celebrate the joys of the Internet.


So far, the official “solution” to the problem would be laughable were it not that is detrimental to all of us. Laws such as SOPA and PIPA are meant, basically, to stop the passage of time. They can not solve the problem but they are very effective when it comes to embitter our lives. Ever since Napster appeared, we have seen a rapid process in which the works of artists are no longer something marketable. Selling a song right now is as artificial as selling a proverb. And if you think carefully, this was not a change but rather a revelation. The artists never sold what we actually bought. They sold their work, yes, though not to us but to people who sought to sell material goods (books, CDs, tapes, etc.). The issue became confusing because the two parties reached an agreement that make it seem as if the artist is selling material stuff and the intermediary is just providing the service of production and distribution. In fact it is the other way around: the artists and authors are hired by label companies and the like to create content that will make the material stuff more attractive to us. You might think that piracy affects the authors because the pirates benefit from their work without giving credit. Another way to look at it, however, is that the injustice is committed against the official intermediary because it is the latter who cares about financially supporting the artist, while the pirates take advantage of the fact that someone already made ​​the effort to obtain the content. Thus the law decided to protect this beautiful business couple. But not because of intellectual property theft. After all, no pirate has pretended to be the author of what he sells. No; this may be the official discourse, but the law protects our couple from piracy simply because it is a dirty kind of competition that threatens to ruin the dynamic of the game. This is to say that the laws we know are not a natural model; they are just a model, a particular solution to a particular problem in a particular context.


It is at this point in history that change came and ruined the effectiveness of the model.  With the ability to share files digitally we are less interested, if at all, in buying material things like CDs, DVDs and books. The disappearance of that business means that both legal and illigal intermediaries are doomed just like the people who sold horses lost their business because of the appearing of trains and cars. However, this is still an ongoing process. Intermediaries are trying to survive by appealing to the sympathy that we all have towards the artists. As an illogical consequence we are judged as if we were another kind of pirates —and a strange kind at that for we do not steal, we do not make a profit, we simply share songs and books and movies as easily as we share proverbs or cooking recipes.


The problem is no longer a question of fair competition amongst the producers of material stuff.  All competitors lost because they have nothing to sell. The true problem is that we need a new model. Some people are pretending that the situation can go back to the way it was before but it can’t; to control the flow of information on the Web, the law makers need to deprive us artificially of great possibilities that we already take for granted. The question still remains, however: how do we give money to the authors to acknowledge their efforts and help them to continue to be what they are? It can’t be something like the iTunes store. Regardless of how cheap a song may be online, it’s overpriced because it should be free. Technologically speaking it makes no sense to charge for something that can be endlessly and effortlessly replicated. What’s more important: to deny ourselves the possibility of free access to art and knowledge is a despicable thing to do in cultural terms. We cannot save the middle-guy-saurus from its extintion.


So, how about the following solution. Firstly, we organize the virtual library which Brewster Kahle proposes in the aforementioned TED talk. That is, we include every published work that humanity has ever produced and we make that content free to all. We name the website, just to add a dash of style. There’s no point in saying that this virtual library would be constantly updated because new content would be published right there, as if in the physical world each author after finishing a book would print it out and walk to a public library to locate it right on the shelf. Besides that, we maintain an accurate record of what content has been downloaded and how many times it has been downloaded. Now here comes the magic. Completed a period of one month, the system makes an accurate count of the percentage of downloads that belongs to every author. If there were, say, a billion downloads, and ten million of those were Lady Gaga albums, then Lady Gaga gets transferred into her bank account 1% of the pool. Which pool? The one that we would gather in parallel for the funding of authors. Likewise if two hundred and ten people download this text that I am writing right now, then I get point zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, whatever percent of the pool. Incidentally that would be good money because the amount needed to achieve something like this is in fact a small sum compared to the money spent on other things, like, say, watching over Internet users to avoid copyright violations.


At this point you will of course be wondering, where will the money come from. But that’s not such a big issue if we try to ensure that artists earn as much money from the fund as they would earn if records, books, and DVD sales were still possible. It takes something like tens of billions of dollars to achieve this, a number that may sound exorbitant but, then again, is actually very little. For intance, this figure can be obtained by cutting a small percentage of the military budget (a budget that, by the way, would only be justified if we were invaded by aliens). Thus, through taxes is very easy to reach the desired number. So easy indeed that we should think long and hard about how much money we put into the pot because we could overdo it  just as we could fall short. For the meantime, let the goal be to replicate the current income of artists and authors across the entire spectrum of popularity.


Now if you do not like the idea of paying taxes so that all information in audio, text, image and video that all mankind has produced and will produce is free and unlimited —something so valuable that it would dignify our species and certainly justify a part of our income— then let the fund be made ​​with private capital. This solution also works if people get scared when someone accuses this proposal of being too “communist”. So instead of polar bears and ads everywhere, Coca-Cola would target its huge advertising budget to fund artists and on the website would have the privilege of writing something like “Coca-Cola: providing free culture to all humanity”. And, if they can not afford spending that much, then MasterCard can get in on it too. The slogan would be very funny. “Having access to all of humanity’s cultural production: priceless.” It sure would be a good business in terms of advertising: a single ad, but the most significant of all. I bet companies would fight each other to be the sponsors of Alexandria.


Now consider other potential problems. The two key things —that you can get money for artists and that they receive it in proportion to the success of their work— are already resolved. The rest is a list of problems that have simple solutions. However, those solutions cover a spectrum from fast and convenient to slow and boring. Difficulties with quick solutions are, for example, all the technical ones. In the TED talk I quoted at the beginning the speaker explains the process and costs involved in the creation of such a website. That was a huge problem but it happens to be solved. Moving on, it may be necessary for people to have an identification number in the library in order to avoid having two popularity contests instead of the one we already know. Downloading the same file multiple times with the intention of supporting the artists you like has to be restrained. Certainly CAPTCHA mechanisms would be necessary to keep out automated programs. In general, measures should be taken so that the number of downloads reflects the dissemination of any given work. The point is that there must be a considerable amount of details that need sorting out but they do not represent too big of a challenge. It will probably be necessary to divide the fund among disciplines so that downloading a movie will not not be equivalent to downloading a book in terms of the money that the authors get. After all, a film involves more people and is much more expensive to make. Probably the process has to be staged. First we make the stock of books, then music, then television and then film. On the other hand, I imagine it will not be easy to kindly ask the record companies and their equivalents in other fields to understand that they are useless. This initiative will have to be promoted strongly and protected by new legislation within the United States if it is to succeed. Personally I think that the finances of the site should be of public domain so that even wages of the people who run the site are known. Transparency is paramount to avoid corruption.


Turning to issues truly stalled, international coordination of the project will be unbearably stubborn. Suppose that the U.S. citizens are able to agree, pass the law, pay taxes, make the library. Then, it turns out that everyone who does not live in the United States does not have access to it. There may also be trouble with payment to foreign artists if their country is not involved in the initiative. Not to mention the fact that collecting taxes internationally must be a huge mess. In short: many things must be resolved, but in essence I do not see what’s wrong with this idea. The basic points are few. We must abandon the notion that copyright includes the right to sell ideas simply because humanity is technically capable of reproducing infinitely the formats that are used to capture ideas. Artist and authors have not always been able to make a living off of their work. That was a positive thing that occurred recently and, to maintain it, it is essential that we implement a new way to reward artists and authors according to their success. The fund for artist that I propose here is a clever solution because it can be divided based on merit. Regarding the source of the money, since it’s a relatively small amount it can either be a public or a private investment. I prefer to pay taxes because it seems more coherent but it would be rushed to rule out the other possibility. Anyway, I would happily cope with advertisement in exchange for humanity’s access to all its collective knowledge.

Finally, I would like to say a word on the originality of this idea. I guess I can say that I came up with it because, indeed, I was in the midst of a discussion on this popular topic when the epiphany occurred. I confess that I really enjoyed writing this text; the idea seems sound and the prospect of applying it excites me a lot. In other words, I think it’s a great idea. For the sake of humility, however, I would like to tell you two things that mitigate the genius of my inspiration. For one I doubt that I am the first person to think about a model such as this one as a solution to the copyright situation that we are facing. Indeed I would bet against it but as I have not found it elsewhere yet, I guess I can still be trilled by the strange and abstract notion of intellectual property. On the other hand and more importantly the truth is that I saw another TED talk in which the speaker introduced an almost identical system but in the field of patents and pharmaceutical companies. It seems excessive to say that it is my idea because the only thing I could think of was to apply a solution to a similar problem into the field of copyright. Here you will find the talk in question, which I strongly recommend. Notice how strange it is that Thomas Pogge does not casually suggest that his solution for the pharmaceutical industry also works to give money to artists and what not. (Come to think of it, we should do a similar model to promote open source software.) The beauty is that the origin of the proposal contained here just shows the importance of information flow. The world is changing so fast precisely because ideas are having sex ever more often. The more ideas we have, the more new ideas we can come up with. Just imagine what would happen if we could build this virtual Alexandria.


So there you go. If you think of an objection to this model be it devastating or constructive, tell me. If you have stumbled upon this idea somewhere else, tell me, as I would very much like to see how the details are resolved. But above all, spread the word.


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