Paying for content online


General Culture

“We want to see good cultural and political work done, supported, and valued, in all senses of that word.” - David Campbell

Rob Haggart has a new post up, addressing the issue of paying for content online. Rob writes “The arguments can be divided into two oversimplified camps. Those who think market forces should be left to decide the fate of artists and their income […] And, those who think people should behave ethically or be forced to behave that way”. In the photo world, he places David Campbell’s argument into the former category, and mine into the latter. I wanted to write about the topic more anyway, so I might as well use this opportunity. (more)

First of all, the idea that the debate places those who essentially support the free market against those who don’t is actually not true. That’s a simple reading of the debate. I can only speak for myself here, of course, so I’ll just do that: I’m perfectly happy for the market to decide which artist is going to be successful and which one isn’t. The only thing that I do care about is that artists get paid for what they do. In other words, if you are an artist and someone “consumes” (ugly word, I know) your work online then you should get paid for it (unless, of course, you want to give it away for free). And that’s it.

If you make a multimedia piece and ten people decide to watch it then those ten people should pay for it. If one million people watch it those one million people should pay for it. I’ve seen some comments about the music equivalent that essentially ran along the lines of “Hey, why do you complain, you’re not a successful musician, so who cares if only a few people steal your music?” But that has nothing to do with the market. In fact, such an approach undermines any market, since if you can just take stuff from people who are not popular (yet) start-ups would be at a severe disadvantage.

Which brings me to the idea of morality. I had a vigourous debate with David on Twitter (possibly the worst place to do that, since even when you “storify” the whole debate it’s essentially impossible to follow - see the debate here) about morality and whether or not it applies or can apply. David’s argument essentially boils down to saying that it’s up to the producers to convince people to pay. And I do think that’s if not wrong then at least only partially true. Here’s why.

The first thing we might want to note is that even though many people would want to make you believe the opposite, we are already paying for intangible things we consume. The whole idea that if you get something digital that’s hugely different than getting something physical, so people can’t be expected to pay - that idea is simply wrong. If you go to the movies, for example, you walk away with nothing other than the ticket stub (and possibly, a stomach filled with a ton of overpriced junk food). You could argue that, well, you pay for the seats and the upkeep of the cinema, which of course is correct, but only to a small extent. Quite a bit of the money goes to the people who made the movie. What is more, I yet have to meet a single person who goes to the movies because they have those great comfy seats. Note that cinemas have been around for a long, long time (before there was anything digital), and people never had a problem with paying. People also don’t have much of a problem with paying for sites like Netflix. You pay your $9 per month (or however much it is), and you can then watch movies on your computer at home. The idea that people just won’t pay for intangible content or for content to watch at home is simply wrong. People do it all the time, millions of them.

The main reason why I think that paying for content online also is a question of morality is because I approach it in a slightly different way than David. In a nutshell, the debate should not be centered on why people have to pay (in other words, making people feel bad about their behaviour).We need to talk about a change in consumers’ habits that is based on the consumers realizing that it is in their own best interest. And this, again, is not an unusual problem or situation. People change their habits of consumption all the time for reasons that are not solely based on the rules of the market.

For example, people who only buy organic produce do so even though it costs a lot more. This is a conscious decision, usually based on being educated about the many problems with non-organic food. Likewise, if you’re a vegetarian, chances are you’ve made that choice for reasons that have nothing to do with the market itself. It might even be an ethical decision. I know a lot of people who don’t eat meat in part because they object to the abuse of animals in the meat-processing industry (I’m one of those people). Or you might buy a Prius because you care about the environment, having convinced yourself that paying a lot more upfront is a sensible choice. Consumers can and often will change their behaviour for reasons that seem to violate simple market arguments.

This is why I prefer to center the discussion about paying for content online in part on morality. When you decide to pay for an experience online that decision might run counter to what you have “learned” over those past years where things used to be free online. Morality enters once we start talking about what is at stake here. As David notes in a comment underneath Rob’s post, he and I easily agree about what drives us to have this debate: “we want to see good cultural and political work done, supported, and valued, in all senses of that word.” This is what this is all about, good cultural and political work done, supported, and valued.

The moment you phrase it that way, this becomes a question of morality, a question of values: Do you want to pay for something because you realize that not only will you be given a unique experience, but with your payment you also support the work? As Rob notes underneath his post “If you want to live in a world with artists you have to support them. I think that attitude is slowly catching on.” That attitude has nothing to do with markets. It has nothing to do with supply and demand. Focusing the debate about paying for content online only on the market misses the crucial aspect: We don’t need to pay for content online because someone says so, but because we want to, realizing that it’s the right thing to do, because, as David wrote, “we want to see good cultural and political work done, supported, and valued, in all senses of that word.”