Public Venture, Public Content

We live in an age where worldwide communication and access to information is easier than ever. The audience that utilizes it has been steadily growing with the thing that allowed it to happen, the internet, in a never-ending self-sustained cycle. These people, these millions of internet users have also demonstrated that they want content now and they want it for free; not by a dubious voting or by “statistics” but by their deeds only. Just a look at the growth of Peer to Peer traffic and the widespread disregard for the copyright laws is all the proof that is needed.

The copyright laws as we now know them, something that was put to use barely a century ago, have not yet become a part of our ethics and we have already reached a stage where they do more harm than good to the public interest. It is no wonder that most people either disregard them or consider them outdated and outright irrelevant. Still, the publishers, the only ones who ever truly gain from copyrights, are fighting with tooth and claw to see them enforced in the digital age. They can see that the internet will make their role obsolete as it allows widespread distribution, without cost, of most types of entertainment content. Movies, music, games, comics, books, all can be copied and spread around by the user himself now.

However, there is still one problem that will never truly allow creative works to become inherently free.

Cost.

Yes artists, musicians, game designers, actors, cameramen and every other little gear in the master plan must still eat to live. The current business model allows that by using the so called venture capital. Someone (which can mean a person or a major publisher), usually quite rich, is presented the idea for a new work. If he decides to pursue it, then he funds the project with the ultimate goal of making the famous ROI. The Return of Investment.

Unfortunately this leads to a few problems as the last years have exemplified wonderfully.

First of all, the goal of funding such a project, is to for the venture capitalist to make money and as such the resulting work must be proprietary, patented, copyrighted and as locked down as it can be. This is the main reason why expensive projects will never be allowed to be released to the public freely, either through Creative Commons or the GPL. For how can the funder make the ROI when everyone will just simply copy the work and go on his merry way? It is unfathomable…at least for the behemoths that provide the venture capital. As a result, we get outdated methods of distributions that are deemed “safer” or crap-filled content that, in the best case, takes away our basic rights.

Then, we have the classic case of the money controlling the vision. It is not at all uncommon for the one who provides the funds to try and control the direction of the work. Regarding works of art, this can be disastrous. Either the artist will bow down, castrate his ideas and release something deemed as safe-for-consumption or the whole thing may break up (Firefly anyone?). This is of course for the case where the idea is even picked up in the first place, for let us not forget the hundreds of musicians that are doomed to obscurity (good for them I say) because the blue shirts could not understand their style. Or how about the classic problem with video games, where a novel idea is not even considered unless proposed by someone like Will Wright, and even he had to fight for it.
Of course, the winner here is not the artist or creator but the venture capitalist, who most often than not is a publisher as well. RIAA, MPAA, EA and all the rest. The creator, even if he IS given copyrights to his work (something that does not happen in the game industry at all) has to follow strict rules because he has sold his soul of the strict contract he signed, or the rights are transferred to the publisher. This is why, for example, RIAA can sue fans of artist who do not condone such action. Furthermore, the creator gets the scraps from any work he produces which, unless he becomes insanely famous, does not even allow him to live off his work [1]. Those publishers then use these money, this ROI to either fund more works or to sue p2p users, lobby for laws that protect only their interests and search for ways to limit what we have access to on the net.

Solution

This problem, as I see it, can only be solved in one way; take the distributor-provided venture capital out of the equation. The ones that should be giving the money for the project are not the ones that are motivated by greed the ROI, but the ones that want to enjoy new content. The people themselves.

This, in turn leads to two problems. Coordination and Gathering.

Like I said before, the world has millions of people using the internet at the time and they grow by the second. If a number of them donated an insignificant number, say 2$ for a specific project, even the money for a major-budget movie should be easy to gather, and the more people that are aware of this, the less the cost for each individual donor.

In the past, coordinating such an effort, making all the millions of people donate money to a specific entity which in turn dealt with the game/movie/recording studios to create the content would be impossible. Not any more however, and we can thank technology for that.

There is a problem with donations of course. Most people donate after the work is done, depending on the quality. This works for many Free Software programs and websites that do not strictly depend on them, but cannot work for projects that need funds from the start. This is why I propose another donation scheme. The Public Venture or Up-front donations.

Vision

Imagine a website where various artists or studios have proposed projects or ideas along with the expected cost in detail. People from all over the world can see what has been proposed and donate money to whichever ones they would like to see produced. These funds are not immediately transferred to the creator but instead stored, or rather held electronically in the site, and available for withdrawal from the owner at any time he happens to change his mind.
If a project reaches it’s expected cost however, then the money is transferred to the creator who is free to begin his work. Furthermore the creator is also required to release the resulting work in the public domain, or perhaps under the Creative Commons or GPL and has a legal binding to finish the work he has been paid to do.

The site could gather contributors by word of mouth, the Free Software community already has a few hundred thousand people that contribute because they like it, and many more who just donate money. The P2P network is filled with people who dislike the Recording Industry and would love nothing less than to see an alternative method to it. Artist and creators can be reached as well. Just word of mouth again. Tell someone who knows someone…

I believe the benefits of such an approach, where the public provides the capital are evident but just for the record let me name some that come to mind.

  • The artist retains his copyrights in a way which does not limit what the public may do to his work. He is also paid adequately and someone truly talented will be capable of living off his work.
  • The public domain is enriched and people have access to much more content at a lower price.
  • Since there is no need to sell a product, there is no need to spoon-feed the people with advertisements and direct them on what to enjoy. What is worthwhile is created, and what isn’t cannot gather the funds to do so. Original ideas have a chance to flourish as people have a chance to see them in the drawing board and the risk of failure is minimal for each person involved.
  • Quality is increased. There isn’t some publisher pushing for a Christmas deadline. There is no need to drive developers to the limit.
  • No more DRM, no more rookits in our content. No more lawsuits. No more payola, No more guilt. Artists are rewarded

Just imagine. How much would you donate if Josh Whendon offered to continue Firefly and release it on the public domain. If he wanted to gather $500.000 per episode, wouldn’t you give $5? The number of visitors to a medium popularity site would be enough to do it. The Digg’s visitors per day could donate 10 cents each and do it. And let’s not even talk about the numbers of the P2P pirate network.
What about Starcraft 2? Wouldn’t you give some money do finally see it and GPLed no less?

Epilogue

With this I’ll close this already lengthy post.
The power to change the world is already within our grasp, if only we realized it. As long as we keep twiddling our thumbs and let the powers that be lead us, we’ll continue to be handicapped and lose more of our rights with every day that passes. Fairplay, Vista and the “Treacherous Computing” are only the beggining…

PS: I wish to see this attempt happen and I’m certain it can be made to work. That said, if anyone wants to help me to attempts it, he or she is welcome to get in contact with me.


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