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The New Auteur

Independent Film in Times of the Internet

A week ago, I was trying to write a chapter on culture as a commodity and all the things concerning payment for creative products. What always struck me as a bit weird was that nearly everyone takes it for granted to be paid for their creations. This is something I don’t understand. I would like to teach much more, but the university doesn’t seem to have any vacancies. So should I just teach without getting paid? Maybe. As a filmmaker, I want to make a film. So I will. But why do I expect the world to be waiting for my film and people line up to pay for it?

A lot of the criticism of Chris Anderson’s (not so new anymore) book Free (of which there is a lot: Shooting People members, Malcom Gladwell, John Taplin and in the comments of this Techdirt post) is this weird sense of expecting to be paid for something that nobody asked for, paired with sticking to old, and possibly outdated, business models of the analogue world.

I do think that Chris Anderson made some valid observations and that there are business models around giving products away for free. And his argument is backed up by simple economics:

  • Competition in a free market always drives the price of a product to its marginal costs.
  • Infinite goods will have marginal costs of almost zero and will thus be available for free.
  • Scarce goods, on the other hand, can be sold for a price above their marginal costs.
  • When giving things away for free, those things stop generating income. They can no longer be considered a product. But they become a free resource for other products, which then create a new market.

All of this is nicely laid out in Michael Mesnik’s post on Techdirt – and discussed ad nauseam in the comments.

I think, most of the criticism is motivated by protectionism of old businesses. But the internet puts artists into a new environment. Digital products are no longer scarce – they are abundant. Whereas before the internet, access to films was restricted through cinema admission, TV license or DVD rental/purchase and owning a copy/seat meant that someone else couldn’t own this copy/seat, today those limitations do not apply anymore. What once was a private good (excludable and rivalrous) is now a public good (non-excludable and non-rivalrous). Films will never ever again be private goods – if copyright protections will start to work (or if people decide to follow legal offerings like iTunes), films might become club goods; at best. But the times of a film being a private good are over.

This now doesn’t mean that people will not pay for films anymore. They will; just as people pay for other public goods (train fares, NHS in the UK). But there will also be free-riders – pirates.

A friend of mine is a booker and publisher for independent music. He clearly profits from advertising shows and bands online – for free. Those bands are able to play live and even earn some money from their shows (though not enough to make a living). But still he complains about the internet and piracy. Nobody buys CDs anymore. Well that might be true. But on the other hand, marketing is free. It is much easier for smaller bands to attract fans and to get known.

That all goes together with people complaining about Anderson’s Free. What is it that we want? Do we want an internet that allows us to communicate freely and widely or do we want a pre-internet world where access is scarce and expensive? I would rather like people to see the internet as a chance and embrace the new opportunities than complaining about some free-riders. And if those pirates are such a big problem, then maybe we should follow the suggestions of Chris Anderson, Brian Newman or Kevin Kelly, who seems to have spoken about this first.

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