Saturday, March 15, 2014

An Open Letter To People Who Bitch About File Sharing


Recently I came upon an article online addressing Kurt Sutter, the creator of the FX show Sons of Anarchy and his stance on file sharing, or what some erroneously call piracy. His ire was mostly targeted at Google and its many legal attempts to erode copyright law in the facilitation of said piracy, but the larger issue was the idea that as a creative person working in Hollywood, online downloading of paid content is slowly chipping away at the system by which creative people are rewarded for their efforts, and as such threatening the creative enterprise altogether. As a creative person who regularly produces independent content including many free podcasts, online short films, and essays, and one who hopes to one day be in a position to earn a living off of my work, I can't help but feel a little put off by his stance, even as I can sympathize with his plight.


The crux of the thing for me comes out of what he himself calls a "clunky analogy," comparing the commercialization of his art to a luxury car first sold at market price, and then for considerably less, and then given away for free, contending that while a free car might be great, eventually the quality of those cars will diminish as those once responsible for making them great could not sustain themselves giving away the product of their talent. Forgetting for a moment that cars and art are two different things and even a shitty free car is worth something, I can't get away from the cold declaration of art as first and foremost a commodity. Now, I understand that the film and television industries are about business, but it seems to me that the drive to create great art exists prior to the need to earn a living from it, and to suggest that art will suffer if its not rewarded as exorbitantly as it currently is in certain circles seems to forget the Vincent Van Gogh of it all.


Not to compare myself to one of history's greatest painters, but when I write something or work to produce something that I genuinely love, my first impulse is to show it to the world for free. That's why I have a blog for the record, and every short film I've done or other project I've worked hard on has appeared here because the whole point of making them was so that people would see them and enjoy them. Now, that being said, I also have several scripts in the pipeline that I hope might one day be picked up and sold so that I may one day be in a position to make bigger and better projects, but at the end of the day, my desire to earn a living on my work is not an end, but a means to an end, and if it never happens, I'll still be doing whatever I can to turn my weird ideas into weird stories or movies or comics or whatever I can make for others to experience. The idea that I might one day Go Galt, or whatever the creative, non-douche equivalent is, just because there isn't a market for what I do or the rewards aren't good enough seems completely alien to me.


I shouldn't have to explain why digital downloading isn't stealing, but fuck it, because some people are too stupid to understand it, I will anyway. If you sell, say, DVDs, presumably you bought them at a lower price from a wholesaler in order to make a profit on them. If I physically take one, I have stolen not only the merchandise itself, but also the money you spent to buy it, and the potential profit you could have made from its sale. Now, if I download that same DVD online, what have I taken from you? You still have the item, and you can still sell the item, just not to me. The most you have lost is a possible customer, the same is if I'd simply gone to another store or borrowed a copy from a friend, and even that assumes that I definitely would have bought the DVD if not for the ability to get it another way, when its just as likely that I might have done without. This gets even muddier with TV, which is supported mostly by ad revenue rather than the sale of a physical thing, not to mention an antiquated ratings system that makes the success or failure of most shows completely arbitrary.


More than that, the business of making art seems to be a unique one that I would think would be immune to the sort of gradual degradation Sutter describes. There have been great shows and there have been terrible shows since the inception of television, and the greater degree of one over the other in any given era has never had anything to do with the ease with which viewers had access to them. The whole idea of paying for TV is relatively new in the scope of television history, and even newer the idea of TV shows living on in DVD/Bluray and digital form. Like any business, the order of the day is always to innovate or die, and I wonder if the problem might be more about an industry that would rather whine about the sudden inequality of being beholden to a technologically savvy public than actually work with them toward a mutual benefit. Add to this that its an industry built upon artists, ideally anyway, which is to say people who can't help but do what they do, and you have the perfect platform for evolution of the medium. Sutter's argument seems to hinge on the idea that most people who work in television only do so for the money, and maybe that's true, but maybe that's also the problem.


I mention all of this to make one final point, which is that I see file sharing not so much as a challenge to the corporate entertainment structure as much as the ultimate expression of Capitalism. Capitalism is, as I understand it anyway, a situation in which the market, I.E. we the consumer, dictate the value of commercial products. The enemy of Capitalism is Monopoly, where the purveyors of commercial products set the price as they see fit. In the past, the creators of content had a monopoly on its distribution and we paid whatever we had to because we had no other choice, but in the age of file sharing, we the people dictate what our entertainment is worth. The fact that most of it is worth nothing isn't our fault! Instead of carping about our ability to take away their monopoly and get around their desire to shovel so much crap down our throats so they don't have to work as hard, they should be trying to make their product so good that we can't refuse them. Make a movie so awesome that an online cam isn't enough and I have to buy a ticket to the theater. Make a CD so great I need to see you in concert. Make a TV show so amazing that seeing it the next day for free online isn't an option. If they can't do that, then what the fuck good are they anyway, and why should we pay them anything?

Yeah, okay, sorry. End of rant.
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