(File) Sharing and the Arts
by Nancy Baym — Microsoft Research
February 27, 2013 – 16:15
We are used to hearing “sharing” equated with “stealing” thanks to ongoing entertainment industry efforts to make it harder to share intellectual property online. What’s at stake from this perspective are the three Cs of control, careers and cash. These stakeholders have a point – if it’s true that people stop buying when they can download for free, then there is less money going into the coffers of the industry and the people who create the cultural materials we enjoy, and there are fewer jobs for the many people involved in their creation, distribution and sales. But that’s a big “if.” The data are pretty clear about control - audiences do have more power over distribution than ever before, though the entertainment industries remain exceedingly centralized. It is also clear that careers in some industry sectors are being lost, although one hears little about how those losses compare to the gain of new careers created through hundreds of online businesses such as Netflix and Spotify. The data are less clear on cash. It’s hard to draw an evidence-based line of direct causality between file sharing and revenue. There are several studies showing that at least in music filesharers buy more than those who do not fileshare.
But I’d like to set that whole conversation aside for the moment and consider another issue at stake in sharing. What if the right rhetorical frame for discussing sharing is not theft, but life? Consider this quote from an interview I conducted with Stephen Mason,bass player of the Grammy-award winning band Jars of Clay, who began their career in the 1990s before filesharing took off and who would seem to be amongst those with the most to lose if sharing is theft:
“Artists are alive when they create. And people that consume art are alive when they receive it and they pass it on and they share it.”
He went on, drawing on Lewis Hyde’s argument in The Gift that for gifts to retain their social value, they must continue to circulate:
“I have to trust in the gift economy idea, because honestly at the end of the day I would rather be surrounded by people that I know and love that are creative and that are moving and changing cultural currents. And to isolate myself in the conversation of infringement basically puts the art - it puts us in the corner that’s not as interactive and that’s not as alive. There’s not as much life in it and that’s the risk. There’s always going to be that risk. But I've been encouraged that there’s survival. There’s survival in the heart of that instead of the opposite.”
What if Mason is right? What if sharing is about art, artists and those who love art being at their most alive? What if the real risk is the loss of vitality in pursuit of shutting down infringement? How might things look if we took seriously the claim that the survival of the arts lies in trust instead of law?
(photo of Mason: Creative Commons licensed by Ian Muttoo on Flickr)