Review: Sharing. Culture and Economy in the Internet Age
The German Research Foundation network Media of Collective Intelligence invited Philippe Aigrain to present his view on reforming copyright. Three panelists, Christiane Heibach, Sebastian Haunss and Mirko Tobias Schäfer, were then asked to respond to Aigrains theses. Here is my statement on Aigrain's book Sharing.
With Sharing. Culture and Economy in the Internet Age, Aigrain provides a timely and needed intervention in the heated debate on copyrights. The debate on copyrights has been most prominently shaped by the so-called 'moral panics' (Patry 2009) initiated by the copyright industry and their lobby, and by law enforcement. While the moral panic campaigns framed sharing as theft and as lowering innovation, creativity and cultural production, the law enforcement tried to implement 20th century (corporate) copyright into emerging media practices of digital culture. Recently, a broad appeal against the introduction of ACTA demonstrated that a thorough revisiting of copyrights and media practises is necessary. This painful rebound for the EU commission and the copyright industry lobby -to which Aigrain most prominently contributed with his excellent and indefatigable lobby work at Quadrature du Net- provides now the space for a fresh debate on copyright. Here, Aigrain's proposal for a new regulation for distributing creative work and compensating creators is an important and most needed contribution.
The Proposal of a Creative Contribution
Aigrain extensively argues that sharing is an act of expanding the overall accessibility of creative works. Sharing therefore becomes a dynamic and crucial element of information infrastructures. As such Aigrain frames sharing as generally useful activity. In order to transform the current practice of clandestine and often illegal file sharing into a societal desirable and legitimate practise, Aigrain proposes a universal flat-rate, the creative contribution, for compensating contributors according the attention their works received. Aigrain's proposal is not very radical in changing existing copyright. It rather builds on the current situation with the exception of proposing a solution for the vague area of fair use and non-market sharing. This proposal is intriguing, because it provides a convincing starting point for so many stake holders to revisit the current situation. It will hopefully start many discussions among policy makers. As Aigrain said so aptly during our discussion, “We can not afford not having a discussion on copyright.” In the following I will focus on a few points of Aigrain's book that I find remarkable and discuss those I find problematic.
Benefits of the Creative Contribution
Aigrain's proposed 'creative contribution' would legalize the current situation of file sharing, fair use and establishing a system of compensation, the so-called creative contribution. Aigrain's compensation scheme is neither based on the corrupted and monopolised collecting societies nor is it a state-administered tax; it is a system of 'distributed compensation' through the users. It provides an immediate solution for the non-market of sharing cultural texts. It constitutes a stable and regulated cultural resource that can be protected and that serves also as a sustainable infrastructure for monetization. The creative contribution could break the monopolies of the collecting societies which distort market forces, are crippling artists in their choice to share and that are dated concerning their practice and methodology.
Since attention is a main factor for compensation, not much would change for the leading industries. Viewing the top downloads at Pirate Bay shows a large overlap with the productions of the mainstream media industry. However, and that is probably the most intriguing aspect of Aigrain's proposal, the diversity of shared texts might increase under a creative contribution. Based on exemplary research in peer-to-peer file sharing networks, Aigrain's team found a larger diversity of shared files, that means more attention distributed to a larger quantity of provided texts and more attention for a larger group of creators. The creative contribution promises to provide access to a larger and more diverse variety of cultural texts.
Questions Concerning Technology
In order to allow the creative contribution to reward all contributors of creative work, downloads need to be tracked. Aigrain assures that all aspects would be handled with the utmost care for user privacy. However, questions remain concerning the data harvested in such a system. Who is collecting those data and who is analysing them?
If successful and diffused widely, this compensation scheme would be deeply integrated into our cultural practise. It would become the most determining actor in cultural production. As the Google algorithm, the Amazon recommendation system, and the Facebook social graph determine what kind of search results, recommendations or social relations we recognize, this system would be influential on the cultural products we reward. How to ensure that it won't reward works that rather fit the algorithm than the our expectation for cultural relevance and excellence?
Another question would be how to ensure the possibility for changing the system, once change will be needed again in the future? His proposal of creating a URI (Universe Resource Identifier) might become Internet standard and would therefore be open to be used in various configurations. Imagine what would happen if the creative contribution became algorithms that also communicate with virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, creating a distributed economic ecosystem of online production, distribution, consumption and financial transactions?
Sharing is Caring. Questioning the Normative Imperative
While the technical aspect about the system's influence on cultural production remains my biggest concern, I am still uncomfortable with the normative imperative of Sharing. After extensive reference to his own practice of sharing the book under Creative Commons, Aigrain formulates a normative imperative declaring sharing generally good and exceedingly desirable for society. While I can clearly see the benefits of sharing as a means of redundant information distribution, I still doubt that things are that simple. It might overestimate the quality of shared files, as well as the cultural interest of the participants, who as figures show share mostly porn, mainstream music and mainstream films. I actually do not think that such a normative imperative is necessary to argue for revisiting the current copyright situation. It might be sufficient to point out to what extent current copyright law enforcement forms a most serious threat to our civic rights and how it stifles innovation and economic progress. It is clear that the restricted copyright and its law enforcement contradict our democratic values and are inconsistent with our civic rights to privacy, freedom of expression and information freedom. It also contradicts the liberal dogma so popular among policy makers since it regulates markets, lowers competition and rewards monopolistic corporations.
Instead of only to acknowledge sharing as positive element for information distribution, it would be also important to keep pointing out -as I have done in my book Bastard Culture!- that copying is an inherent part of computer technology. Business models have to match this media materiality and the related media practices in order to become sustainable; holding on to dated business models fitting the media materiality of industrial age and mechanical reproduction is neither desirable nor feasible.
Aigrain's comprehensive book provides a thorough list of issues revolving around the distribution of creative content and its compensation. The book revisits earlier proposals for sharing and has the benefit of addressing their weaknesses. His approach is suited to unify many contrary positions on the current practise of sharing. Aigrain's proposal seems to provide the space to conceive a decentralised system, where various providers could develop systems for collecting and distributing a creative contribution.
Even if other stake holders won't be able to identify with Aigrain's creative contribution, his text is well suited to kick off a fresh debate. Policy makers, creators and everybody concerned with web-related political issues should read this book.
Philippe Aigrain. Sharing. Culture and the Economy in the Internet Age. Amsterdam University Press: Amsterdam, 2012.
Available online: http://www.sharing-thebook.com/