Commons-based models of cultural production

How do communities come together to produce free and open cultural works?

Erik Desmazières, illustration for Borges, Library of Babel.

Copyright law is going through a crisis of legitimacy. It doesn’t reward creators in any fair way: less than 1% of artists make a lot of money, and artists make much less on average than any other category of workers. It also doesn’t provide a fair deal for consumers: now that distribution costs are so small, charging per copy is increasingly difficult to justify. Copyright law, as it stands, works best for publishers – intermediaries who produce and distribute large amounts of creative material.

Average artist earnings (2007/08, Australia)
Throsby & Zednik, Do you really expect to get paid? (2010)

I am interested in what cultural production looks like when it is disintermediated – when producers and fans, writers and readers, creators and consumers converge to develop fair and sustainable models of production. My research investigates how people are coming together to coordinate and fund the production of cultural goods, in diverse areas including software and games development, music, film, literature, academic publishing, 3D printing, etc.

The problem with copyright theory

Copyright is based on a two simple assumptions: (1) people do not create without financial incentives, and (2) consumers will not pay if they do not have to. It turns out that both of these assumptions are false. I think that people fundamentally want to create, and we need to find ways to fairly support them. I also think that in the right circumstances, people want to support the artists or other projects that are important to them. There’s lots of evidence to support both of these points. See: wikipedia. Any free software project. Amanda Palmer. Trent Reznor’s Ghosts I – IV. The High Energy Physics community. The Humble Bundle. Louis CK. And so on.

How far, then, can cooperative models stretch?

We do not yet have enough good data about how communities come together to create large projects. We don’t really understand what conditions make cooperation possible, and when it doesn’t work. We know little about the complex processes of negotiation, the development of social norms, that allow people to work together. And most importantly for my work, we don’t understand what fairness means in these types of relationships. Fairness in a traditional copyright market is relatively straightforward – people are paid according to the amount of copies they sell (even if the copyright system achieves fairness only on average). Fairness without exclusivity, though, is much more complicated – when do fans, creators, producers, patrons, consumers all feel like they have reached a good deal? What is it, in all of these relationships, that limits free-riding, and how generalisable are any of the answers to these questions?

Research project

To work towards some answers, I am interviewing a broad range of people involved in commons-based models. In particular, I want to hear from:

  • Writers, musicians, filmmakers, or other artists who are bypassing traditional copyright distribution models and engaging directly with their audience.
  • Software hackers who are funding open source / free software projects.
  • Games studios using crowdfunding to to fund their development.
  • Librarians, academics, publishers, research institutions who are coming together to publish open access research.
  • Maker communities sharing plans and physical resources to create open hardware.
  • Game developers leaving traditional publishers in favour of a direct relationship with their users.
  • YOU – the creator or contributor to any of these projects.

If you want more information, have some comments or suggestion, please get in contact.

For more detail, I also have a paper that explains the theory and beginnings of this research project: Nicolas Suzor, “Access, progress, and fairness: rethinking exclusivity in copyright” (2013) 15(2) Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law 297 (PDF).

Ethics and interviews

If you are willing to be interviewed for this project, here is the full ethics information and consent form.