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StarMerrow Essays on Artistic Creation in the 21st Century

The essays indexed here represent various ideas about the future of artistic production. They are intended to stimulate thought and discussion, and their positions are not necessarily endorsed by StarMerrow.

Essay Index

"I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore: A Self-Publishing Primer" (Rob Loughran)

"Let's Not Fight a Losing Battle: Funding Digital Media in the Age of Internet Piracy" (Arwen Spicer)

"A Talk with Emily West Afanador, Indie Film Director and Actor" (Arwen Spicer)

Let's Not Fight a Losing Battle
Funding Digital Media in the Age of Internet Piracy

by Arwen Spicer

We can't stop internet piracy. If art forms that are readily reproducible in digital form are to remain economically viable, we must find ways to fund their existence that do not depend on selling copies of their products. One alternative is a No Debt Model. This path replaces a for-profit paradigm with a for-art paradigm in which the goal is to spend no more than you can pay for. In this pay-as-you-go model, production funds are generated before production (e.g. as contributions) rather than afterward (e.g. as sales).

Why Can't We Effectively Oppose Internet Piracy?

To fight internet piracy is to fight human nature. Most of us usually take the path of least resistance, and in the digital age, copying of digital materials is likely to remain fairly easy. Government and industry can "crack down" on bootleggers, develop anti-pilfering programs, and keep legislators up at night hammering out ever-stricter interpretations of acceptable use of technology. But if the past is any indication of the future, hackers will circumvent the programs and render the laws unenforceable in enough cases that piracy will remain an easy option for the casual music/film/etc. audience. For example, in 1999, a teenager, Jon Lech Johansen and two others circumvented the Content Scramble System (CSS) designed as a digital rights protection tool to limit the readability of DVDs.[1]

Certainly, not every technological security measure has been compromised. At best, however, digital rights management can aim to stay one step ahead of the hackers in an endless copyright arms race. In "Software Obfuscation from Crackers' Viewpoint," Hiroki Yamauchi, Yuichiro Kanzaki, Akito Monden, Masahide Nakamura, and Ken-ichi Matsumoto conclude, "[T]here is no assurance that we could list all the [possible] attacks exhaustively since the crackers might conduct unthinkable avenues of attack. We need to keep on updating the guideline [for applying obfuscation methods] to improve resilience to the attacks" (Concluding paragraph).[2] No matter how many battles digital rights software wins, it will never win the war. That is the nature of technological escalation.

Of course, ethics dictates that users should not bootleg even if they can. Bootlegging denies creators/producers the funds they need to continue to create and, thus, jeopardizes the future of the very art being bootlegged. This line of reasoning is cogent, but it is also a long chain of cause and effect, and human nature responds better to a short chain.

Take me, for example. I consider myself an ethical person; I balk at downloading any number of files that many pirate without a moment's hesitation. And yet it's difficult for me not to pirate. Let's say I want to see an anime that won't be licensed in English for a year (or maybe never). But everyone's talking about it now, so I get a hold of a fan-sub (fan translated subtitles) on the understanding that I'll buy the licensed product when and if it becomes available. The fan sub is wholly adequate: artistically, it's all I need and may in some ways be a higher quality product than a "dumbed-down" commercial translation on a DVD with annoying ads and menus. I own my fan-sub for a year, then hear that a licensed version is available. I must then choose to pay, say $30, for a product I have already owned for a year in order to buy another copy of it that I don't need solely to fulfill an ethical obligation. At that point, the transaction gives me nothing but a sense of personal integrity and hole in my pocket worth $30. It's taxing to be that good!

You'd never use such a method to teach a child about ethical responsibility. It's one to say to Jimmy, "Save up your allowance, and then you can buy that toy." It's quite another to say, "Here's a toy, Jimmy. In a month, I'm going to ask you to pay me for it and if you don't, you probably won't get in trouble." The first process shows Jimmy that if he's good he'll be rewarded. The second shows him that if he's good, he'll be punished--because paying his allowance after the fact will feel like punishment. Jimmy will not respond well to that second line of reasoning, and neither will I. Or you, most likely.

As long as piracy is easy and comparatively low risk, a large proportion of a target audience will engage in it. The most common response to piracy--increasingly punitive reprisals--depends on the government/industries keeping technologically one step ahead of the hackers: a difficult and expensive task. But even where prosecuting bootleggers is technically feasible, this approach alienates a product's target audience. We see music lovers who hate the music industry, anime lovers protesting the cessation of fan-subs, and fans blithely violating copyright law in order to make music vids to praise and publicize the very material they are "stealing." Every time copyright holders impede fans in pursuits fans perceive to be legitimate, bootleggers feel less guilty and piracy become more socially acceptable.

A No-Debt Funding Model

I propose that we give up the fight. We should accept that once a product is online, people will copy it without paying. That doesn't mean we have to make it easy. We can still "expect" people to pay for downloads and put up security protocols to encourage the "average" viewer to pay a buck or two for a download through the official server. And some will continue to buy nice-looking DVDs or CDs. But we can't base our long-term economic model on the hope that this income will generate a profit or even pay production expenses.

Rather, like people in the days before credit, we could pay-as-we-go. Such a model, of course, means that projects must be producible on micro-budgets, and they can be. The feature-length science fiction web show Night Is Day cost approximately £2000 (roughly 4000 USD).[3] According to director Carter Soles, the science fiction comedy Spidertron was produced for around $5000, including the one-time cost of a camera.[4] Director Emily West Afanador, likewise, reports that her film, The Tale of Persephone, a re-imagining of the Greek myth, is being produced for about $5000.[5]

For middle-class people--or even the traditional "impoverished graduate students" producing Spidertron and The Tale of Persephone--raising the capital to produce a micro-budget project is not out of reach. People routinely pay thousands of dollars for a vacation or a wedding. This money could just as realistically be put toward our art. Sources of income could include personal savings, micro-contributions from family and friends, and funding campaigns.

Indeed, for creators who already have an established fan base, fan contributions are a potentially powerful source of funds. Farscape fans famously attempted to fund a fifth season of their beloved series. For a conventional television series, this attempt, laudable though it was, was not financially or politically viable. There is no intrinsic reason, however, that such funding attempts could not raise handsome micro-budgets for the fandoms of the future. Indeed, within a year of Farscape's going off the air, a single fan petition had collected pledges totaling $375,000.[6]

Of course, Farscape initially amassed millions of fans by airing internationally on television. The average web show, indie film, or privately produced CD will not have the same fan base to draw from. But it won't need hundreds of thousands of dollars either. Night Is Day's website lists several sponsors (individuals and organizations). Any project with web space and a PayPal button can similarly collect funds online from friends and supporters potentially around the world.

Collaboration cuts costs. Once purchased, a good quality camera can film any number of local projects. A recording studio set up in someone's garage or a good special effects software package can meet diverse needs. Costumes and sets can be recycled (as the BBC has known for years). Cooperative efforts can minimize cost without minimizing quality.

For generations, theater and live music have been produced by local communities on small budgets. We have entered an age in which computer technology enables such communities to produce film, recorded music, and other media on attainable budgets as well. We can raise the money. We can create the art. If we create it well enough, we will please people, and they will be more likely to fund us for bigger and better projects in the future. We don't have to "profit." We don't have to quit our day jobs to be legitimate professionals producing quality work. Art began for the love of art, not money, and it's time we returned to those roots.


[1] Content Scramble System. Wikipedia. 28 July 2007. 9 September 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Content-scrambling_system.

[2] Yamauchi, Hiroki; Kanzaki, Yuichiro; Monden, Akito; Nakamura, Masahide; and Ken-ichi Matsumoto. "Software Obfuscation from Crackers' Viewpoint." Proceedings of the IASTED International Conference: Advances in Computer Science and Technology. 23-25 January, 2006. 9 September 2007. http://se.aist-nara.ac.jp/achieve/pdf/118.pdf.

[3] Night Is Day. Official Website. 9 September 2007.http://www.nightisday.com/.

[4] Soles, Carter. Personal communication. 6 August 2007.

[5] Afanador, Emily West. Email. 13 September 2007.

[6] Fund the Fifth Season of Farscape. iPetitions. 2003. 9 September 2007. http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/FarscapeFund/.

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