Making money on free art

There’s no point in having a world full of “ethical” but unemployed artists. I think there is an ethical compulsion for people with talent to use their talent (artistic talent is power which carries responsibility). And, since making money at doing it is frequently a requirement for that to happen sustainably, then making money at doing your art is also an imperative.

Seen this way, we aren’t in a conflict between “ethics” and “making a living”, we’re in a conflict between two ethical imperatives, and we must balance them appropriately in order to live ethically. Artists need to make a living, and excellence should be rewarded.

Before we knew of an alternative, the copyright sales business was the most ethical path available to most. But we now have technology that enables new business models which in turn enable a new production culture. Or so we believe.

If we’re actually wrong (as the existing proprietary culture dissemination industry apparently believes), then we’re in the wrong because our efforts at being “ethical” in terms of user freedoms are violating the imperative to create. However, if you’re reading Free Software Magazine, there’s a pretty good chance you don’t believe this, and I know I don’t. But this is the reason why those “pragmatic” arguments that so many people like to dis are important. We must prove the pragmatics in order to validate the ethics (or to put it another way, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions”). Charity is a fine thing, but it’s industry that moves mountains.

If this new free culture is actually viable (which is a precursor for being ethical—if you believe as I do that not expressing your talent is “unethical”), then it should be able to prove it by sustaining itself. However, nobody expects an infant to pull its weight. The commercial success of free culture is retarded by competition from the proprietary production culture, which, from our point of view at least, does not “fight fair”, but uses its existing success to promote its future success.

Cycles of Consciousness, a graphic arts concept sketch I did in 1990 with pen and layout markers. One of several works I’ve recently started to digitize. I hope to convert some of these to more editable and scalable formats, like SVG. In order to become relevant, free art will need safe zones or safe channels in which to flourish. (Credit: Terry Hancock / CC-By-SA 2.5).

The priority, in my opinion, is to establish “safe zones” (or “incubators” or “nurseries”) in which artists can produce by free culture rules. There are at least two distinct types of such safe zones: ones designed to protect amateur production and ones designed to protect professional production.

Copyleft is the primary means of protecting amateur production. In the specific case of software, this turns out to have a professional side because software is often used as a means of conducting professional work, so refining it, even if it is not a cash center, is directly related to professional production. But works of purely aesthetic value lack this incentive.

Needless to say, there are important works that can be achieved entirely by amateur production. That’s essentially what made Wikipedia, for example.

However, for the “excellent few”, the proprietary system of monetary reward, based on restrictive copyrights is still the best system.

And that means that we now have a system that preferentially locks away only the best works of our time. Surely that’s a bad deal from a public good perspective?

In order to construct a system more in tune with professional needs, we need a halfway zone. Incubators that encourage the production of free cultural artifacts. There are many ways to construct such incubators.

One important idea is “collective patronage”. There are several ways you could do this. Some have suggested doing it at the level of national government programs. But, of course, it’s also possible to do it through certain kinds of business models.

Imagine, for example, a subscription “digital art channel” which permitted subscribers to evaluate works submitted, using, for example, a “favorites” or “Top 100” scheme. The same algorithm used for instant run-off voting could be used to convert this information to a global popularity index, which could in turn have a power-law distribution applied to it (maybe Pareto if you want to closely mimic the behavior of conventional markets). The resulting evaluation would then be used to divide a collective percentage of subscription sales among the contributing artists.

It’s possible to imagine other formulas based on “reads” or other automatically-collected criteria (such methods might be most appropriate for dividing advertising-based income). In fact, I would probably design a rather more complicated algorithm, and it might be something that would typically be considered a trade secret, much as the methods used by banks to evaluate loans.

Such a system would have a number of advantages in that it would reward artists according to an “objective” (or more accurately a “collective subjective”) criterion, it would reward them on a smooth slope rather than on a plateau, so it would reward excellence much as a conventional art market does, and it would also be attractive to indirect funding, and it could generate wealth without restrictive licensing.

To be realistic, temporary semi-restrictive licensing (e.g. the Creative Commons’ “non-commercial” module) might be used to encourage subscription. This is exactly the sort of business model I see enabled by a sunset type of license.

Such a system would create a safe professional production zone mimicking the original US concept of copyright: a limited-time, limited-scope monopoly that sustains the artist in exchange for timely commission to the public domain (or more accurately, the free-licensed domain). In fact, this original US copyright system can be viewed as a collective patronage arrangement managed by the US federal government (which might be a good way to look at it: it makes it very clear why the current regime is so bad—it’s currently a very sub-optimal collective patronage mechanism because it serves the patrons so poorly, e.g. not giving them any free-licensed works until after they are dead!).

In my opinion, our task should be focused more on how to make our own system work and sustain itself rather than trying immediately to displace the existing system. Unlike free software, free culture has yet to acquire adequate safe zones to nurture a strong professional artistic production environment. Until it does, there won’t be much point in complaining about the problems with the existing proprietary professional production environment. The onus is on us to find viable systems and make them work. Safe zones, however they are implemented, are a way to allow such a system to coexist—perhaps for a long time—with the existing proprietary culture.


Copyright © 2006 Terry Hancock / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (

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