Artists should be paid, Part 1: Why Creator Endorsed sales promote fair sharing

I've been trying to zip together what I know about free online collaborative projects (like free software) and commercial free culture projects (like the just-released "Sintel" from the Blender Foundation or "Sita Sings the Blues" from Nina Paley). It's easy to get lost in the logistics of such a production. One of the questions I'm bound to be asked is "How do I know I'm going to get paid?" Artists have a strong fear against being "exploited", though they're often less clear on exactly what that means. A little bit of examination, though, shows this may be a strength of the "Creator Endorsed" free culture approach to marketing a work -- it makes fair payment a matter of personal financial interest to the publisher, as I hope to explain here.

Making Movies with Free Software

This article is part of an on-going series on the challenges I've faced in producing two free-licensed movies, Marya Morevna, through the Morevna Project and Lunatics, which we are working on as Anansi Spaceworks.

We're so used to the pressure towards corruption that comes from the proprietary business model that we take it as a foregone conclusion that we will need to rely on legal force to maintain fairness. Because of this expectation, I expect I'll get some frustrating reactions when I look for collaborators on Lunatics, just as I have in the past.

"How do I know I'll be paid fairly?"

This is the basic problem that the artist is going to want to answer, because it's a foregone conclusion (for them) that I'm going to try to take them for whatever I can. This somewhat paranoid stance is the result of a combination of artistic insecurity and an industry which copyright monopoly and corporate power have made very corrupt indeed. Many new, amateur, or semi-professional artists have serious doubts about their own talent and the fear tends to get displaced into a kind of victim complex regarding "exploitation." This often has little to do with their actual talent -- I've met some very talented people who are still nursing this kind of insecurity.

Like it or not, we have to deal with the industry's fallout and show why our approach is different

Add to this the dog-eat-dog industry of proprietary publishing which divides fans and artists and pits them against one another to maximize profits for the middleman, and it's not hard to understand why they feel the way they do. They've been burned or they've seen other people get burned, and they want to be cautious. So, like it or not, we have to deal with the industry's fallout and show why our approach is different.

The Proprietary Approach or "The Gambler Model"

It takes a certain amount of bravery to put your work on display in the first place, but to expect payment for it too, can be too much. Yet this is how the proprietary model of selling artistic works operates -- the artist must demand payment from the publisher, who in turn demands payment from the audience.

That picture looks a little like Figure 1.

Figure 1: Proprietary publishing is based on exclusive monopolies and uncompromising demands for payment

One unfortunate consequence of this arrangement is that it doesn't allow much for experimentation or changing the rules to better fit the realities of the production. Such a change is likely to be met with extreme distrust. Yet, on an experimental project, it may be very hard to know in advance exactly what a particular artist's contribution should be worth as a fraction of the whole.

Seen this way, it puts a tremendous burden on the publisher and investors to take all of the risk on the project. They must make rather ridiculous extrapolations, and gamble that the project will work according to plan. We call this "entrepreneurship", and our main solution for all the risk is to cultivate a class of rich gamblers and make the stakes so high that they'll go for it despite the risk.

We also cultivate a huge gap between amateur folk art and professional high art, partially to justify this enterprise despite the fact that many artists will want to create regardless of money.

But is this really the smart way to do this? And does that gap really have to be so wide? And do we really need to gamble so much?

The Free Approach or "The Cobbler Model"

Laure Parsons, writing for suggests a different mental model for artists which she compares to that of a Cobbler. I'd like to encourage artists to read it.

This is where I want to be, and I want to work with artists who want to be there, too. Less risk, more artistic freedom, and yet money can be made.

More than likely, you will make very little money compared to the big wins of the "gambler" -- but if you keep at it, your chances of success as a "cobbler" are better

But for collaborative projects, it's going to mean that what risk does remain has to be more evenly shared. You very well might not make any money at it. More than likely, you will make very little money compared to the big wins of the "gambler" -- but if you keep at it, your chances of success as a "cobbler" are better. And besides that, it's still possible to get lucky and have a runaway success that does deliver the big income (it's not very likely -- but then again, it never was).

In this way, a project can be semi-professional as a whole. It may not actually make money, but if so, then it's just a free-licensed community project. And (because of the free license) the resources are all there to be reused in other projects -- this process alone will create artistic value.

Assuming that it does work -- that it has an audience, that it finds that audience, and that that audience is willing to pay for it, then income is possible.

Figure 2: In the free model, the flow of revenue is entirely driven by fan confidence in the ethics and quality of the product

Follow the Money

The big winners in this model are not the big, lowest-common-denominator Hollywood crowd pleasers. Instead, they are the "cult" projects -- ones that may appeal to a narrow fan base, but can inspire fanatical loyalty from them.

The revenue stream here -- or the one that I prefer -- is the "Creator Endorsed" model. We'll sell DVDs and probably some other ancillary merchandise containing either the videos themselves, or "character goods" or the like for fans. These will interest fans, people who not only enjoy watching the series, but want to share their appreciation of it and support the artists who created it.

The fans are buying because they want to support the artists. That means that the value of the product is the fairness of its profit-sharing

That desire is what we are capitalizing on. We have no power to force them to buy our packaged videos or even our character goods. These things are all free-licensed, so a competitor could easily make them if they want and compete directly with us.

But the fans are buying because they want to support the artists. That means that the value of the product is the fairness of its profit-sharing.

So, as the publisher, I have to deliver what they want: the psychic value of feeling like they have fairly contributed to the artists for the work they have enjoyed. Without that value, we have no product to sell and no revenue to make.

The Fans are Boss

The upshot of this is that, if I want to stay in business, I have to serve what the fans really want. And what they want is to support the artists in a way that is as fair as possible. To this end, it's going to be in my best financial self-interest to:

  • Be completely open and transparent about where the money goes
  • Make certain that the information displayed to fans, the information displayed to artists, and the information used to control the disbursal of funds is all synchronized
  • Defend whatever choices I make on major division of funds and department pay scales so that the fans and artists understand and agree with it

So you see, it isn't really that a legal contract is necessary to bind me into paying the artists. Rather, the terms are guaranteed by much more direct market motivation: the fans' impression of the fairness of the distribution is directly connected to their "reason to buy" the products we sell.

As the publisher therefore, the problem is one of maintaining a reputation of fairness so that fans will want to support us by buying the products we sell. What must be legally required is not the actual terms on which profit-sharing happens, but the process that ensures transparency of the finances so that fans know who they are paying and for what.

Licensing Notice

This work may be distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License, version 3.0, with attribution to "Terry Hancock, first published in Free Software Magazine". Illustrations and modifications to illustrations are under the same license and attribution, except as noted in their captions (all images in this article are CC By-SA 3.0 compatible).


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