Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Day 29: On Value and Expense

"How can this be better, if it's so much cheaper?"

Hank and John Green (I coincidentally mentioned them yesterday) are among the several creators of so called "premium" channels on YouTube launched this year.  The term "premium" does not mean that the viewer needs to pay, but rather it means that these channels have been granted a certain sum of money by Google/YouTube to make free content.

The Green brothers were specifically asked by YouTube to submit ideas for a channel, and they submitted two ideas which became SciShow (where Hank explains all things science) and Crash Course (where Hank and John take turns covering topics from Biology and History, respectively).  Effectively, these are educational videos made for the purpose of dispersing academic and academically correct (informed by experts in each field) content to interested learners, whomever they may be.

As it happens, the Greens today hosted a Google Live Hangout, basically a live chat between the two of them on Google+ that's made available in real-time on YouTube, where they answered questions submitted via Twitter about their Crash Course channel (link to recorded event).

One question asked of the two was something along the lines of `do you charge schools for the use of your material.'  The answer was, of course, a resounding no!  However, Hank brought up a common conundrum amongst anyone who produces material that's freely available; it's a problem you see all the time if you write open source software.  In answering the question, Hank pointed out that the tiny Crash Course staff cannot go to major teacher conferences and advertise about how awesome their material is, like paid material providers can and do do, even if the material produced by Crash Course is far superior than most of the video material  made elsewhere.  Teacher's and administrators shy away from free or cheap because, "How can this be better, if it's so much cheaper?"

Think about that question for a minute.  What is the relationship between what a thing costs and what it's worth?  Just because you sell a thing for cheap (or give it away) doesn't just mean that you CAN'T compete in the marketplace of said things, but increasingly it might mean you simply choose not to.  The notion that expensive things must be better is a notion deeply rooted in the thinking of last century and one that should be eliminated with the greatest of haste.

Over the last two weeks I've attended many presentations by students who are working on final projects for one course or another.  Twice now I've heard students discuss papers they've written on the resent SOPA/PIPA debates; once as a senior seminar project for one of our Management and Information Systems (MIS) majors, and today for a final Honors Program project.  The fact that these two students from widely different fields who may never even have met one another both chose the same topic is a indicator of the impact that the SOPA/PIPA Internet protests had, perhaps especially on kids of about this age.  It's concerning, however, that in both cases the presenter set against each other two competing claims, the need to protect intellectual property, and the need for free speech.  (Incidentally, in both analyses free speech won.)

But, the framing of this debate is flawed from the outset because even though both bills are ostensibly about "online piracy", in the one case, and "intellectual property", in the other neither of bills outline a legislative effort that has anything to do with protecting creators and innovators.  Why?  Because copyright isn't about protecting creators and innovators.

Copyright, as currently codified, is about protecting the ability for big corporations to control the means of distribution for media thus slinging both creators and consumers over a proverbial barrel in terms of who you have to pay.  Creators pay by giving up their rights to their own creative work so as to have a chance at getting an audience AND consumers pay so that they can have access to the artists they want to listen to.  (Incidentally, the ability to listen to an artist is actually CONTROLLED by the middle-man corporation.)

The same notion is true for middle-man corporations in many different fields.  The key is controlling the channels of distribution.  You want to read scholarly articles, oh, so sorry, you need to pay JSTOR exorbitant amounts of money (hundreds of thousands of dollars a year PER university) to get your university access to this site.  Keep in mind, the only thing JSTOR does, is catalog other peoples' creative and intellectual property.  Or the giant publisher Elsevier; if you want published you need to pay us (give up your intellectual property rights) as the creator and then we'll lock away your work so that only people with enough money can see it.

The same is true for education material.  You want educational material for your classroom.  Well, we have good stuff that creative people have paid us to sell to you.  You want standardised testing material, you'll need to pray at the altar of Pearson.  (Incidentally, are your students not doing as well as you need on these tests which have been enshrined as the holy standard for learning, well we've got you covered there too.  We've got these test preparatory materials we can let you have, for a fee, of course.)

In all these cases, who is it that's getting rich?  Who is it that's protected by the law?  Who does copyright serve?  The middle-man corporation.  (Inicidentally, the argument is commonly made that copyright is important for innovation.  Laughable.  When is the last time an actual innovator was able to defend a copyright claim.  No.  Copyright is a tool to fight innovation, to keep it at bay.  I'm not saying it has to be that way, but I'm saying it is that way.)  The corporations who've set themselves up between consumers and creators benefit in every way, coming and going, richer all the time.

There was a time, last century, that it made sense for their to be middle-men.  Distribution was a difficult, often time-consuming, and certainly expensive endeavour.  Even as distribution technologies became cheaper and cheaper, the only way to reach a wide audience was via expensive advertising campaigns.  Those days are gone.

It's time people realised that the price you pay for a thing doesn't correlate to it's value to you, and in fact, has been artificially and quietly inflated to line the pockets of unnecessary middle-man corporations who've solely got the ear of congress to write laws that protect them and only them.

It's time to stop pretending that distribution is the bottle-neck between creators and the audience they're trying to reach and to demand an end to laws and lawmakers that would artificially enforce said bottleneck.

Free is not bad and the Internet is nothing if not the chance to more perfectly realise the meritocratic marketplace of ideas; no useless, non-contributing, blood-sucking middlemen need apply. 

  1. Clay Shirky on SOPA/PIPA     
  2. A good example of why the very notion of "intellectual property" is bogus

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