ACTA & Copyright

The German news1 are currently dominated by a verbal battle between proponents and opponents of ACTA. For the uninitiated: ACTA is an attempt to put stricter legislation on the internet, in order for content providers (music/film industry) to better fight piracy.

In this debate, proponents of ACTA love to label any opponent as a pirate, potential pirate, or supporter of piracy. By contrast, ACTA opponents love to accuse ACTA proponents of being enemies of liberty.

The sad thing is, both parties are missing the fundamental truth behind the debate2.

The truth isn’t that we’re debating the ethics of copying works of art. The truth is that we’re witnessing the death struggle of a business model.

The traditional business model of artists is to create a work of art, and then keep selling it forever – or however long they can. This is also the business model of art dealers, such as music labels, etc.: they take on the act of selling the artwork forever, in return for a slice of each sale.

Previously, consumers seem to have been very willing to accommodate this business model. For better or worse, that is no longer the case. Instead, consumers are generally very willing to pay for events involving art, such as concerts, author readings, etc.

It really does not matter why this shift has happened. Unfortunately, the debate tends to rage around how to restore the market to a state it was in a few decades ago, instead of realizing one simple economic truth: you survive if you adapt to the consumption behaviour of your consumers, and if you don’t, you die.

What ACTA represents is an attempt by those who depend on the old market behaviour to forcibly restore consumption behaviour that existed a few decades ago. That sort of thing has never worked, and there is no reason to believe it will now. For that reason, I cannot support ACTA – never mind what it contains. It just won’t solve the problem.

Younger artists tend to do very well by understanding that their work of art is, for better or worse, little more than some extra merchandise on the side. They understand that their main revenue stream comes from public appearances, and therefore their de-facto job description is that of a performing artist – even if they are authors. I’m privileged to know a number of such younger artists who have realized this.

The older artists are left in the cold, however. They have the choice of adapting or dying. In some cases, adaptation is not possible any longer, and of course these artists will find that thought terrifying.

The debate, then, shouldn’t be about how to turn back the clock forcibly. What it should be about is how to transition older artists that, for one reason or another cannot adapt to the changing market, to survive. It should be about a smooth transition to the new business model.

You can take the harsh approach and not care about failing businesses. That would be justified to the degree that in other, non art-related markets, we do much the same. Or you can take the caring approach and try to subsidise the old breed of artists, until they die out. That’s another approach we’ve taken in some industries, just to save families from poverty.

Either approach works3, but misses the elephant in the room: is that the artists themselves aren’t the problem, they’re only being instrumentalized. It’s that the current content distribution industry is intrinsically linked with the failing business model of traditional artists. And it’s that industry that has the political and financial clout to hammer ACTA through. Whether it works or not, whether it helps artists or not.

What we’re witnessing is the death of the content industry as we know it, and it’s agonizing struggle to stay relevant in a world in which consumers have long moved away from their business models, and artists are increasingly doing so.

As a business person and company director, I have no sympathy for them whatsoever: adapt, or die.

  1. Quite possibly also the international news; it just appears to be Germans that are sending me links right now. []
  2. I hasten to add, that that’s not actually the case. I’ve read the same argument I’m making below a few times, but it’s raised far too little. That’s why I’m posting this again, to get it more exposure. []
  3. For a definition of “works”. []
  • Norman Liebold

    Mh, i think you’re right, but not in all points. A problem with this case is, i think, that the modern media can copy any artwork (books, pictures, music and so on) without have big costs after the first production (writing of the autor, make the illustrations and the artwork for a book, for example). Is the product already finished, the copy in the digital way is effective very cheap. Okay, so long. But you have the cost of making the product. One jear of recherche, writing, painting, set up the book for a couple of persons. If you print the book, you have the cost of, for example, 10.000 Euro for 5.000 copys. Now you have the money to live for one jear and the couple of persons, the cost of some machines and (in this example) the cost for the print. That’s, at all, 60.000 Euro? (For people they live very spartanical)
    Okay. And you have one book.
    You sell your 10.000 Books (maybe in the digital way as eBooks) for 6 Euro a Book. Thats well. You became 1.900 Euro back from the state. All okay.
    And you make five days a week a reading (thats only a example, thats impossible) with 100 Euro the evening.
    You say, the people want to are involved in art performance. If thats real, you’re right. Thats wonderfull.
    The people sitting in front of their computers, looking at facebook and co. and don’t get out to hear a little autor five days the week. They going maybe to a big person with big public relations. And many people want to have gigabytes of books of their computers, all for free. And want to going in readings for free (the author want them for hearing, he has to be lucky that he can read his texts). And the people are sharing the books: Hey, get this, i have it on my hd, copy it for you. And whats up with the author? He’s sitting for a year to make a good story, he is travelling to find his informations. From what he is living? If you produce things with your livetime like music, pictures and book, and these things are sharing via digital media, and all the people print the pictures in the next copyshop, hear the music on their smartphones via youtube and reading the books on their kindles for free – the author live from his five-day-a-week-readings? That’s impossible. The musican live from the live-gigs, the Painter from selling his originals. Oh, if you belive, that the people go in the concerts, vernissage and the readings, pay the ticket, buy the original Painting – yes! Thats great. But it is not the reality. They hear the audiostream of the audiobook and sitting at home in front of the computer, checking the facebook-update. They print the copy of artwork in the next copyshop, they download the song from mp3-extracting via youtube and go not to the concert to see the band in real.

    • unwesen

      You’re effectively making my point for me: if you take in 100 EUR for an evening, your rate is too low. Your rate may be too low because you’re selling to the wrong audience or the wrong venue.

      That’s exactly my point, though: figure out your business model. That is, what to sell, who to sell to, and at what price to sell. All of this needs to be informed by how much money you need or want.

      It’s how every other business works.