Incentivizing creativity

Incentive to Create
Mimi & Eunice are by Nina Paley. She says ♡ Copying is an act of love. Please copy.

I agree that monetary incentives drive the creation of lots of content. I’ll even admit that many works that are created solely due to profit motives are good! But the incentive story of copyright is a pretty limited, and limiting, view of human creativity. People create for so very many reasons – just for fun, out of love, venting rage, from passionate faith, exerting persuasion or control, expanding knowledge, for the sheer joy of creation – for all of these reasons at once, and many more besides.

Creative Commons-licensed hoto of a bee
Bee CC-BY Joost Witteveen

The mid-modern rhetoric of copyright – where the economic incentive language really took off – used to be largely implemented around, and in reference to, the works that were created primarily for the profit motive in the first place. But the expansion of the rights claimed by economically-incentivized owners has meant that the same rhetoric is increasingly invoked as universal. That’s a problem for pretty much every public interest issue in copyright – if everyone buys the story that creation and expression are truly driven by compensation, it becomes easier to argue that all those users ought to be paying for the things they use. After all, if they didn’t pay, the things they’re using wouldn’t exist! And if they’re creating themselves, they’re only doing it to get compensated themselves!

creative-commons-licensed page from a diary

Diary 0709 CC BY-ND Ales Motyl

Another note in this same tune is the argument that even if there are people who create for noneconomic reasons, their activities, while nice/pretty/admirable, are not as valuable because they don’t create much in the way of economic good to society. I don’t like to contribute to the “everything is economics” view of the world that prevails in a lot of legal discussion these days, but if ya’ll insist, I’d just add: the existing system of expansive, automatic protection for all works is a LARGE PART of the reason that many of these works don’t create much in the way of economic value.

Say an author finds a vacation snapshot in a shoebox somewhere that’s the perfect illustration to her article on mid-20th century automobile culture in the U.S. Most publishers today would not let her use the photo in a book, for fear that someday, somewhere, the unidentified photographer who took that photo is going to surface and sue – for industrial-sized damages. And yet getting paid (or launching a decades-later copyright lawsuit) was unquestionably never on the mind of the photographer who clicked that shutter. By contrast, the contributors of all the illustrations in this post – many of whom also did not have compensation on their minds at the time of creation – having taken the extra step of Creative-Commons-licensing their works, have made them available for us all to use. Which creates value for us all (assuming, of course, that my blog has some value for us all…)

So much happens in the world of creative and expressive works that is not about compensation – we need to remember that, and push back on rhetoric that normalizes and universalizes industrial modes of creative production and sharing.

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