Just as the economic collapse was the result of cannibalistic, blind greed driven by a demand for profits, so to will be the coming collapse of the community of content creators, of the artists. The shake out is already beginning.

"The Beast That Must Be Fed" ©2009 Doug Menuez

"The Beast That Must Be Fed" ©2009 Doug Menuez


Publishers were exploiting authors in England and the colonies. Thus our founding fathers in their wisdom allowed those who create to own their works, enshrining those rights in our founding document. Copyright and licensing creative content was born. Was this unwise? Do we really want to change the US Constitution? Because new technologies enable the easy rip-off of content? Because you can steal you should be able to steal?

So let’s settle the question of whether using a photograph or text or music outside of “fair use” without permission is stealing. It is. Period. Look it up. It’s illegal. Whether you think it’s morally ok to steal is your problem and karma. If you want to roll through stop signs, cheat on your taxes, or avoid paying sales tax in your home state by buying online, that’s your choice.

But just because a misguided groundswell that began in the 80’s and 90’s out of an idealistic dream driven by new technology we should erase Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 from the US Constitution? Because millions of kids started downloading music because they could? And now they think it’s a right? I forcefully disagree. Just because it’s socially cool to steal my photographs does not mean I have to give up my only way of making a living, granted to me by the Founding Fathers no less. Socially cool behavior has never made a good basis for legal or social policy as far as I know. Gimme a break.

“Information wants to be free…” is the rallying cry for free content supporters. It actually comes from an comment by the brilliant technology observer and writer Steward Brand in a speech in 1984 and later from his book “The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT,” Viking Penguin, in 1987. The problem is Mr. Brand’s comment is almost never quoted in full. The second half of his observation is very important: “Information also wants to be expensive…” and he goes on to describe the tension between the push to distribute free information over the ever cheaper distribution platforms and the extremely valuable nature that the right information for the right person at the right time can have. It can be life changing.


The tension between the public benefit of free information versus the benefit bestowed on the artist creating the content has always existed, and in fact tends to be settled in favor of the public in most cases. There is remedy for the public with “fair use” interpretations of copyright law. I personally support fair use and have donated my work to librarians, students and teachers for education, non-profits and various causes over the decades. Most photographers do, it’s just common sense. Taking away our rights is mob rule, common madness.

And the mob can be quite innocent. It is disheartening to see the NY Times publish a misguided and seemingly harmless suggestion to download Flickr photos to decorate your home. See: Flickr as an Interior Decorating Tool – Gadgetwise Blog – NYTimes.com By SONIA ZJAWINSKI. While certainly creative and well-meaning the effect is to continue the social trend to denigrate and rationalize stealing images. Which is why I was so happy to see Malcolm Gladwell’s new review of the Chris Anderson’s new book “Free.” Malcolm Gladwell reviews Free by Chris Anderson: Books: The New Yorker. Mr. Gladwell points out that the arguments Mr. Anderson and other advocates of free content have put forth are based on false assumptions.

What is particularly insane is this veneer of new age humanism that coats the hollow arguments against copyright by painting this free concept as beneficial to humanity. There is also a specious line of propaganda that blends copyright protection with the interests of big corporations, thus pairing artists with corporate desires. In fact, big corporations recognized early on the importance of intellectual property and were fine with trade practices that respected the intellectual property of their vendors as they respected their own. For decades. Once upon a time even GM once respected photographers rights in the same way, in exactly the same way they protected their design center trade secrets. It made sense. It was fair play. It was American. That was then…

Corporations are not inherently evil. Some even have codes of ethics and support social causes and do good in the world. They employ people who live in cities and towns and villages who pay taxes that support the police and fire and school services in those towns. In other words they are a big part of the fabric of our country. Yet as we’ve seen with the economic collapse some regulation is a good idea. Even Greenspan to his chagrin admitted he had not realized the degree to which human beings would fall and need to be regulated. Big surprise: markets are not rational. Humans are flawed. Greed takes over and corporations, big business, and Wall Street will eat it’s young and itself. The crisis was a giant orgy of cannibalism.

In the 80’s and 90’s the growing insatiable demands made by Wall St. for quarterly profits, fueled by waves of mergers and acquisitions and taking on of massive debt, ran parallel to this populist rise to steal content on the internet. Corporations needed to save money at the same time as technology was turning analog to digital and teens were saving by downloading music. A nice dovetail evolved to ultimately serve the same master: get as much content as you can for as close to free as possible. It’s not random that more and more corporations are pushing to do buy outs without paying for those rights. Yet they will fight to the death to protect their own intellectual property, I assure you.

So the very idealistic young people who distrust and criticize big business and large corporations are on the same team as these corporations they purport to hate. Together they are working to destroy the fundamental rights of all artists enshrined in the Constititution. Let me be clear: If you think it’s ok to download photos or music or content for free you are on the same side as the large corporations now pushing to crush copyright so they can get cheap or free content for their ads or marketing materials. They have the same goals. How ironic indeed. Yet people love the work of the artists they steal from. Where is the culture going with this thinking?


Who benefits when copyright goes away? Basically the same people who download images to decorate their homes or dormrooms, or music, or corporations seeking cheaper ads. But it’s short term gain people, a false utopia. In fact, the counter-intuitive reality is that copyright laws are good for everyone. What is in the long-term best interest of corporations, and of the music, photo, content loving public that steals, is a vibrant community of artists getting paid enough to keep food on the table so they can keep creating the work that everyone consumes and needs.

Just as the economic collapse was the result of cannibalistic, blind greed driven by demand for profits, so to will be the coming collapse of the community of content creators, of the artists. There is already a shake out beginning. No one sees it yet because along with the rise of this new easy tech the barriers to entry fell so low there are more creators than at any time in history. So we think there is an unlimited supply, and there is a lot of content now for sure. And most of it is crap. It’s been proven that crap does not sell. That fact, just like the fact that regulations work, will be re-learned. Soon enough the economic impact of stealing content will swing like a scythe, slicing through creative lives until a tiny group is left to supply a giant demand. Guess who will have the power again then? If they can hang together with similar trade practices then content creators will rise again.

Why go through this chaotic, stupid mess? Let’s instead embrace the laws that have worked so well for so long. Of course libraries, students, schools, educators, and researchers should have access to cheaper or free content. Of course photographers and musicians should support non-profits, within reason. But those specific interest groups should not drive the last nail in the coffin of the creators who barely get by. Check out the Orphan Works bill and who is behind it.

Please, those who agitate for free content, just show me how writers, musicians, photographers and all who create can support their families when their sweat and labor becomes free and I will drink your Kool-Aid. Until then, your brand of Kool-Aid looks to me the suicidal variety gulped by the poor, bullied cult followers who took their lives at Jonestown. They stood in line to take their poison while Jim Jones booming voice commanded his followers to drink so they could be “set free.”

KILL COPYRIGHT = KILL ARTISTS. That’s a fact and the reality, and all the rest is bullshit. Have a nice day.

July 2009
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  1. Pingback: Free is Expensive? Or Vice Versa? | Living Martyrs

  2. Dave Griffin says:

    Good post, thought provoking stuff as always.

  3. John says:

    Well said. Alas I don’t think it will change the direction of the juggernaut by much. At least when the shit does hit the fan you will have the luxury of being able to say “I told you so”

  4. Pingback: “Information also wants to be expensive…” | Fotolivet.se

  5. Thanks for your passionate, spot-on analysis of this trend. I signed up for a “free” Q&A with Chris Anderson at Google/DC tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    • admin says:

      Definitely! Please update. He’s making important points reflecting real changes in the culture that seem driven by tech advances but still: how does he get paid if it’s free?

      Some people think Creative Commons is a middle ground. To me it’s a slippery slope similar to “derivative copyright” and a path to doom…d

  6. hlinton says:

    Interesting comment from Ruppert:
    —Aggregators: Murdoch and his execs have been pretty vocal about Google (NSDQ: GOOG) and company lately and he promises more. “… We’ll be more outspoken on the whole issue of payment for copyright material and that goes to every aggregator, whether it be Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) or Google or Ask.com or anything. … I mean, there are billions of dollars spent, probably every month, but certainly every year in the collection and the creation of copyright by organizations and they cannot do that and have that material which they own stolen from them or the business will be destroyed.”
    Found here: http://tinyurl.com/lsc2cm

    • admin says:

      HA! Fantastic to see this. Combined with Walter Issacson saying on Jon Stewart that he regretted putting Time Warner content online free we begin to see the wheel turn… maybe… thanks for this…d

  7. Eric says:

    I’m reading the Chris Anderson book right now, and I think is pretty good. I don’t like all the trends he outlines, but he does make some good points.

    I think the way he gets paid from offering it for free (which he does somewhere, I don’t remember where though) is that it’s basically an advertisement to hire him to do seminars or consulting. I think the unfortunate thing is that Free doesn’t work the same for music, photos, writing, etc. but some people want to say “they let me have books and news for free, so this photo must be free too.”

    I’m not sure about Creative Commons, I actually think (cautiously) it should be used more, not less. There are a few variations on it including non-commercial use versions, it’s not the same as offering it free-for-all. I think there is great confusion among average internet users right now, they see a a photo and assume it’s free because they don’t understand copyright. If all the people who really don’t care (the 95% of photo posters who are amateurs, and as you say, or not good photos) put a NON-COMMERCIAL CC license on their stuff, then hopefully people would get the idea that if something doesn’t have a CC license, then it is only available for pay.

    • admin says:

      I do think Mr. Anderson makes some very good points as well. We have to deal with reality. One solution for him is to use some content for marketing and branding so he can get compensated for other content, or through other distribution channels. Content creators have always spent money to some degree on some type of marketing and word of mouth. So this is a kind of variant on what has always gone on with marketing. Basic human psychology is always at play when something is for sale and people like free, we all do. So maybe photographers will have a free section and a premium section and maybe the volume sales will make up for the previous pricing structures. Or some will adopt an iTunes model or who knows. I just have not heard yet of a viable, proven model for photographers and artists to be compensated for their work in the realm of “free” thinking.

      I also appreciate your thoughts on Creative Commons. In the sense that you can create awareness that not all images are free that’s a good thing for sure.

  8. Cogfric says:

    I sympathize, but you set the problem here as one of the behaviour of the masses (who should show restraint) and the actions of the few free content zealots. This isn’t the problem at all, which is one of a fundamental shift in the technology of content production and distribution.

    Artists, consumers and corporations all need to adjust to this new reality and find ways to produce art and find art to appreciate that work in this new reality. If you don’t want images stolen from Flickr, don’t make them public, or watermark them, or live with it. The current situation is unsustainable, clearly, but wishing everyone would just restrain their behaviour because of a law written for an entirely different age and context is as utopian as the positions of the free content zealots.

    • admin says:

      I agree it’s unrealistic to expect “the masses” to behave in any particular manner, but I’m actually not addressing a large group. I’m speaking to the relatively smaller group of photographers who are established and also those up and coming shooters who do have the power to act in their own best long term interest. They can try to protect their rights and existing trade practices as much as possible, while also finding creative middle ground when necessary. It’s absolutely true the rapid shift in distribution and decreasing costs of same have created this disruption, but some things do remain constant. Namely, artist’s can’t work for free so a system of compensation that has worked well for a long time can probably continue if artists organize. It’s been done before and it could happen again with education.

      Everyone from Murdoch down agrees the free content idea was a mistake and the genie won’t go back in the bottle so something has to evolve. Maybe I’m tilting at windmills here but I’m not convinced photographers will continue to shoot themselves in the foot, but rather start working together to say no to bad deals.

  9. Russell Kaye says:

    Doug- thanks for these thoughts.

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