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Monday, December 24, 2012

Creation v. Production and the future of intellectual property

As a photographer, I produce a lot of work.  What I mean by that is that the vast majority of what I do is take pictures that people pay me to take.  I show up at a particular place, at a particular time, and take a picture of something because somebody wants an image of that thing, person or event.  In order to do this properly, I must possess a certain set of skills and certain equipment.  I'm paid because there is only a certain supply of individuals with the time, talent and equipment to do that.  There is both a supply and a demand for these services.  I'm making a product.  It's not particularly different from somebody who produces any other product or service.  Sure, I have to have certain knowledge and skills and equipment, but so does a guitar luthier, for example.  

I don't have to worry about this work being stolen from me, because if I'm not paid, I simply don't take the images.  This is the key to producing a consumable product, you can demand payment because it's made to fulfill a demand, and it can simply be not made.  The laws of supply and demand can easily enough make a price that will either be paid or not.  

On the other hand, I also make some creative art as well.  A lot of it is moody cityscapes, but there are many other types as well.  These images are made simply because I feel a personal need to capture the feeling I felt at the time and place.  To capture something of myself in an image of the world.  The reward is in the capture and the release.  The capturing of that thought, emotion, idea.  The release of it to the world so that I might communicate a little bit of who I am to the larger world in a way that I can't just merely say out loud.  Most people will probably never care for these images.  But when they are appreciated by others, it's a special type of communication.  It's often a communication that can't be had with language and normal discourse.  It's a feeling that I made something of myself that somebody else gives their time and attention to.  When the creative art I make isn't appreciated, it's typically because these feelings aren't interesting, understood or otherwise valued, or perhaps I haven't the skill to adequately communicate through my visual images, or most likely some combination of all of the above.  But the first reward is the capturing and the release.  Sometimes the second reward is in the communication, appreciation and replication by others of something of me in the world.  A third benefit may be in the incidental payment from some other individual to me because of this artI made.  Perhaps they enjoyed it enough to want a higher quality print, maybe they want it signed, maybe they just liked it so much that they just felt I deserved some sort of monetary payment.  Those things are fine, but for real creative art they're incidental.  

Sure, download this image if it says anything to you.

This isn't to say that there is a firm, sharp dichotomy between creative art and productive work.  Many times things are a blend of the two.  When I cover a football game, I'm there for a purpose, to produce images that I believe the people paying me to be there will enjoy.  But I also use my eye, creativity and vision to that end, and I create images that I will like and enjoy creating as well.  But there isn't any secret or confusion about any of that.  

However, I think there can be a problem when creative art and productive work are conflated and/or confused.  If a woman in her mid thirties hires me to create a beauty shot of her, but I think her wrinkles are more interesting, and I take an image that brings her wrinkles to the surface, while she paid me for a standard beauty shot, I've conflated productive work and creative art.  I can argue with her all day long about which image would be better, but I've failed as a producer of work product.  She wanted X, she paid me to do X and I agreed to do X, but I did Y.  I failed.  Her tastes didn't fail.  I did.  

Then there's the idea of selling out.  We often enjoy the creativity of others.  We like to see them take something of themselves that's beautiful or interesting or empathetic and share it with us.  We don't so much consume that type of art as much as we experience it.  We learn something of ourselves and the artist.  It's both an individual and shared experience, when it's done right.  But part of the enjoyment of such art is the unstated agreement that we are experiencing something that's genuine, that they're not simply pandering to our tastes, but that the shared enjoyment and understanding is real and not them pulling our strings and pushing our buttons.  Part of the enjoyment of Pearl Jam's Alive is the belief that Eddie Vedder really felt this way, that those emotions were real, and we're having a shared experience every time we listen to it, that he wasn't simply applying formulaic emotive techniques designed to make us like it.  Part of the enjoyment of Duane Allman's fiery crescendo in the live at the Fillmore East version of In Memory of Elizabeth Reed is the belief that the fiery crescendo was his emotional release.  Not just a mindless replication of scales he practiced that he knew worked, but a musical expression of feeling and emotion.  It's that we like that we believe that they felt that way, and we appreciate it.  It's a connection, enhanced by the feeling that the music creates.  

But why doesn't anybody still really listen to Creed?  Or why won't anybody really listen to Nickelback in 20 years?  Because they made/make a product.  Because they're applying well worn formulas for music that a lot of people enjoy.  I don't really think there is anything wrong with that.  I can enjoy formulaic, pandering music.  You'd be hard pressed to really describe a technical way that the music of Pearl Jam and Creed differs (as Pearl Jam's critics often point out).  However, there is a difference and it's that Pearl Jam mostly (though not entirely) created music they liked and wanted to release, and if people bought it or enjoyed it, that was great (or not so great), if they didn't, they didn't.  Whereas Creed saw what Pearl Jam did, reduced it to a formula for success, and then created a product to be consumed.  The problem is that when you create a product, sometimes people want a different product.  People never tire of sharing genuine feelings and communicating real felt thoughts and emotions through art.  

To be fair, we don't really know that Pearl Jam didn't pander to our tastes and that Creed did.  However, that's missing the point.  The point is that that is how the two are perceived, and when it comes to art, perception is reality.  Creed was perceived as making a consumable product, while Pearl Jam was viewed to be making real art. It's a sticky line between the two.  Ultimately, this is part of the issue whenever you blend consumerist production with artistic creation.  If you're charging for your art you have no real grounds to complain when somebody accuses you of selling out or not being genuine.  Sometimes you get lucky and people view your calculated art as genuine, but more often your genuine art may be viewed as faked, a sell out.  Well, you are selling it, so you have no real way to refute such accusations.  If you're selling art, you give up all grounds to dispute that you're selling out, to whatever detriment such an accusation may be.

Today this issue is also becoming one of practicality as well.  When you charge for creative art today, you risk the 'problem' of it being 'stolen' and disseminated without payment to you or with your consent.  If I post a photo on flickr, and people love it, it can easily enough be downloaded and 'stolen' by just about anybody.  If I'm a musician and I produce a song, and people like it, it will almost certainly be illegally copied and shared.  

What's the solution?  Well, the solution is to deny the problem and quit trying to demand payment for creative art.  Accept that the payment for creative art is that part of you is out there in the world.  This doesn't mean that artists have to starve.  Almost every art can also serve productive purposes as well.  Musicians can perform live shows, where people pay them to produce a musical product for their enjoyment.  Because the performance, in real time and place, is the product, it can't be stolen.  Photographers will always be called upon to take great portraits that look a certain way.  Because you're better at it and have better equipment than most, there will always be some market for it.  Painters will always be called upon to make murals and paintings of certain things for certain purposes.  Because they're products with a demand, for a purpose, they can't be stolen.  Heck, you can even sell convenience and other aspects of the product.  A musician can sell a great vinyl record with a great cover image, with great artwork, and a great story, combined with the music.  A photographer can sell a signed print of some creative art you made, printed with special techniques.  Just realize that the age of selling creative art for the purpose of profit, to the extent that it ever really existed, is probably over.  We will never be able to put the genie back in the bottle of illegal downloading.  As long as images and music are able to be put in the digital world, they'll always be stolen easily, and be nearly impossible to 'punish' the 'theft' thereof.  And in many ways, that realization will enhance art, instead of becoming the ruination that many herald it to be.  If we are to create art, let it be for ourselves, and maybe we hope that others enjoy it, and maybe even want to just give us money, but realize if we want to demand money we should be making a product, and not creating art.  The two are different.  

Despite all the claims that illegal downloads will push musicians not to create, we have more music available to us than ever before today.  The amount of music I can find right now, produced within the last year, is greater than all the music available for easy consumption in the entire decade of the 1980s.  Despite the easy downloading of images on the internet, there are more photographers, producing more outstanding art than ever before.  There are more artists producing more art than ever before, not less.  Real art doesn't need a monetary carrot to be produced.  

If you want to make money you, like all other businesspeople and workers, must figure out how you will produce a product that people will buy.  If you want to create art, you must figure out how to express yourself in a way that satisfies yourself.  People just aren't going to pay for creative art any longer, unless you give them some reason why they might want to.  Then whatever caused that desire to give you money is the product, not the actual art itself.  If you want to sell a product, you need to make sure that it's something people want to buy and can't easily enough obtain without payment.  You can no longer really complain that your art is stolen.  At this point it's simply becoming an irrelevant, incoherent complaint.  The whole thing about creation of art is that once created, you don't really own it any more.  It's not yours to be stolen.  Sure, the physical vinyl record is yours.  The music that's on it isn't.  The platinum print may be yours, the picture and idea behind it isn't.  It belongs just as equally to anybody who has ever seen or heard it.  Whether they have a 'copy' of it is immaterial,  As soon as they heard it or saw it, it just as equally belonged to them.  

Creative art isn't produced and it isn't consumed.  It's created and it's experienced.  Conflating it with a consumed product only leads to problems.  I think we can view the digital revolution as a solution to this problem, not a problem to be solved.  We can get back to making products that people want to consume, and creating art for people to experience.  I think we'll all be better for it.