(this page is just one part of my “Dangerous Copyright Myths” piece. Please also read the introduction and index for more context)
Oh, yeah, work on commission. Absolutely nothing wrong with it… as long as you don’t base the whole system on it. Proposing a switch to work on commissions comes from the fact that even those who believe myth number 1 cannot deny that skilled labor has a lot of value, much more than the cost of one copy of a work.
Therefore, they say, one could and should only work on commission, making sure before beginning that all the effort needed to create that work will be paid in advance or at delivery, rather than being distributed over single copies.
Besides flying right in the face of the “all creativity is unstoppable” myth, this belief has even more serious flaws. As Cory Doctorow put it:
Before copyright, we had patronage: you could make art if the Pope or the king liked the sound of it. That produced some damned pretty ceilings and frescos, but it wasn’t until control of art was given over to the market — by giving publishers a monopoly over the works they printed, starting with the Statute of Anne in 1710 — that we saw the explosion of creativity that investment-based art could create. Industrialists weren’t great arbiters of who could and couldn’t make art, but they were better than the Pope (or, any government, for that matter (Marco)).
As far as rich patrons are concerned, I don’t want to live in a world where we must hope in Donald Trump or Paris Hilton for “advancing” culture; a world where, above all, you must hope that somebody becomes so much richer than all others, no matter how, that he or she can spare some change to advance the arts.
I have nothing at all against billionaires, but I don’t want any world where they are necessary for any reason. Government funding has the same inherent flaws of individual patronage, except much worse (more on this below). Relying on fan donations could only work with already established artists, so let’s just forget about that too.
Let’s imagine that there are only individual artists and normally wealthy fans, and that one of them knows, before and more than the artist herself, what she could create next. What is fairer, a fix price for each copy so the cost is equally and transparently shared among all fans… or asking the first one to share the whole load?
Besides this, the main, huge flaw of work on commission is that, by definition, it can only come from whoever (governments, billionaires, corporations…) already has power and big interests to protect. Work on commission by the big guys only produces the kind of works that they like. It only makes sense if you consider art just a tool (to keep the masses hypnotized, for example).
The truth is that, once copyright excesses are removed, charging for single copies is much fairer on all readers (by sharing the load) and puts each one of them in charge for rewarding artists. Why should such a task be reserved to governments?
The fact that work on commission is often proposed as a solution by the very same people who will rant for days on how good it is that the Internet is finally destroying intermediaries, creating direct connections and value for them, etc.. is one of the best proofs for me that its advocates aren’t really thinking this through or are just freeloaders looking for noble-sounding justifications.