Of Awards, A**holes, and Assorted Aggravations: Part Two

How would you feel if a group of people (who aren’t associated with the IRS) just offhandedly decided that it was all right for them to steal one-tenth of your yearly income because they felt that what you did for a living wasn’t really work, and you made all kinds of money from the advance anyway, and it’s information and all information should be free, or whatever bullsh*t justification they use to anchor their highly selective form of morality? (And have you ever noticed that most of these Neolithic dipsh*ts who claim that “…all information should be free…” are usually in the process of shelling out or paying back tens of thousands of dollars for a college education so they can have a goddamn piece of paper to hang on their wall to show that they know what they’re talking about because they’ve Got. A. Degree!? Talk about your “Never the twain shall meet…”) —Gary A. BraunbeckOf Awards, A**holes, and Assorted Aggravations: Part Two  (It was Already Broke When I Got Here)

This essay is marked as Part 2, but I can’t find Part 1. This leads me to suspect that when Part 3 is obliterated, this essay will be removed. To top it off, this is elsewhere identified as “rant installment #4,” but I can’t find an index to the other 3 rants. These annoyances almost kept me from blogging this article, but I think what it has to say is worthwhile.

Braunbeck teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction program. What must be extremely infuriating is that it’s the very people who enjoy what he writes that are taking money out his pocket.

A book that costs $7 earns him about sixty cents. The rationalization behind file-sharing is that rich publishing companies don’t need all that money — but, Braunback argues, starving artists (the vast majority of creative types) do.

Still, for every sixty cents that a file-stealer doesn’t pay Braunbeck, a publisher is out $6.40. One imagines his publisher should be the one tracking down violators, but it sounds like Braunbeck is the one who’s taking the time to do that. It’s the publisher that can afford to give the modest advance that a writer might be able to live off of while churning out the book — publishers are the patrons of the modern age, and are thus extremely important. But playing the sympathy card is difficult when fans see just how little of the book’s cost actually goes to the author — I’m not sure that somebody who’s already decided to download a book and save $7 is going to reverse his opinion once he knows how much Braunbeck depends upon the 8% of that figure that he will get… and simply talking the consumer into sending sixty cents of guilt money Braunbeck’s way is not going to solve the problem (because if the publisher doesn’t make money on Braunbeck’s next book, then it won’t ask him to write another one).

Apple’s iTunes is a good idea, in that it brings the cost of individual songs down into the realm of impulse purchases. There isn’t big money in short fiction, at least not on the scale of pop music.

I do think Braunbeck is too dismissive of online culture and of academics who study it — but this is perhaps just my emotional reaction to his emotional reaction. Since I’m not a fiction author, I’m more likely to be stung by his attack on academics than I am to be affirmed by his defense of fiction authors.

At any rate, I was teaching a class in “Writing for the Internet” the week Napster was closed down. One of the avid file-downloaders in that class was a music major. I asked her to imagine that she was good enough to be hired at a few gigs a month, had a CD or two that she was trying to sell, and the income from those CDs were just enough to be considering quitting her full time job and trying to make it as a professional musician — and the day after she quits, somebody starts making unauthorized copies of her songs available on the Internet for free. Then somebody remixes one of her songs, using samples taken from a superstar’s album, and the lawyers from that superstar tell her she’s being sued for misusing their intellectual property. Now she not only has to scrabble to get her old day job back, but she has to fight a legal battle and pay bills. Now the music that she loves goes from being a source of income to an expense.

I don’t know whether my little parable got that student to change her ways, but I could see she never really thought of it that way before.

I sympathize with Braunbeck, since the same file-sharing culture is also challenging the educational system. When I was a grad student, I knew an undergrad who would buy one of those big honking expensive Chemistry textbooks, and photocopy all the pages that were assigned in the professor’s syllabus. This was before the advent of color photocopiers, so he would tear out the pages with color graphs, and then return the book to the bookstore.

Today I’m sure it’s much cheaper for students to do a similar thing on the color scanner in the computer lab, and print the pages on the lab printer, all for “free”. If universities were more progressive about rewarding faculty who produced quality online work, then more instructors would be able to find better work online; they would rely less on big honking $100 textbooks. Some schools, reacting to the cost of rooting through student computers for illegal file sharing networks, and paying lawyers to handle the lawsuits, have instead offered subscriptions to legal file-sharing services as part of dorm fees. That sounds like an excellent recruiting tactic, and a pro-active response to a problem that won’t go away just because people stamp their feet about it.

While I’m not aware of the precise identity of the “Neolithic dipsh*ts” to which Braunbeck refers, I do think that academics who advocate the open source philosophy are thinking about the long-term benefits to society. The open source philosophy attempts to subvert the tragedy of the commons — the human tendency for the individual to take more than his or her fair share, eventually leading to the depletion of common resources and the destruction of a way of life. Those who take art without paying for it are taking proportionally more money from the lowly artists, who rely more heavily on individual sales (rather than, say, Britney Spears, whose music is completely incidental to her celebrity).