Crowdfunding and the Potential of an Infinite Public Domain – by “Brendan S”

I first stumbled across the concept of ‘crowdfunding’ in the form of the site Kickstarter, a “new way to fund creative ideas and ambitious endeavors.” There are many similar sites (Fundable [unfortunately now closed], SellABand, Kachingle, and a host of others), all of which raise small amounts of money from large numbers of donors to encourage creation – art projects, albums, websites, and more. This method comes in varying flavors of generosity – users can give money in return for a future stake in the creative product, rewards designated by the creator, or simply a nice warm fuzzy feeling. This practice is similar to, say, a radio station pledge drive, but the powers of the internet have vastly redefined the scale, making it possible for individuals with great ideas to raise capital in order to create. In this way, it’s similar to the (super-old) idea of artistic patronage, but redefined and democratized.

In “The Public Domain,” Boyle relates Thomas Macaulay’s opinion that there are only two ways to remunerate authors: copyright and patronage. Macaulay rejects patronage out of hand, declaring that a system in which creation is subject to the whims of the elite is “fatal to the integrity and the independence” of the artist. The notion of crowdsourcing this patronage likely never occurred to Macaulay, as the technology to enable such a system has only recently become viable, but I think it presents an interesting and attractive third alternative.

Under the crowdfunding model, funding comes from people who believe in the potential of an idea to be made into a creative product; the implication is that a successful and popular work provides incentive to fund the next. It is a sort of patronage, but turns the system around a bit – rather than a patron directly commissioning a work, the creator ‘commissions’ their patrons – the ultimate self-promotion. If a certain goal isn’t met, the creator’s project may not get completed. What appeals to me about Kickstarter’s system, in particular, is that it personalizes a donor’s stake by offering rewards of low cost to the creator, but potentially high value for the donor (a customized song, a postcard, a signed print), giving it features of a barter system.

On his blog, Paul Watson discusses the basic features of a successful crowdfunding endeavor: 1) Build a base of true fans. 2) Free-up the abundant; charge for the scarce. 3) Continually engage with people who like your work. This is a fairly simple system – hard to make work in practice, of course, but so are current methods of selling intellectual property. In this model, those who pay do so because they care about your work and are invested in its quality, not because they value it only as a commodity.

Now, of course, to the public domain implications of this model: under a system where this were the norm for distribution, copyright as we know it would cease to be necessary; the public domain might even become the only domain. All creative works could exist in a commons, a shared cloud of resources for the entertainment, education, and inspiration of the masses – and material to be incorporated into the next generation of works. With artists preemptively compensated for their work, they wouldn’t have to carefully guard its distribution, but rather spread it to as large an audience as possible. Kickstarter’s multiple levels for support would act as a form of price discrimination, with high-level donors receiving non-monetary rewards for subsidizing a work’s availability to moochers. (Though the artist could, after being funded, offer the product through a traditional marketplace as well.) The only copyright measures necessary under these circumstances are along the lines of the ones those suggested by the Budapest Open Access initiative: control over the integrity of a work, and the right to be properly acknowledged (like the Creative Commons attribution license).

The parallel of this mode of distribution with the Open Access initiative is an apt one, if we consider creative products to inherently be a form of knowledge. These products are knowledge in that they increase our cultural literacy; they benefit both the individual, in providing a shared currency for communication and future creativity, and the public, in increasing collaboration, innovation, and understanding of the world.

I’m writing as an artist, not a lawyer or economist, so I realize that this system might not make sense to everyone. I would personally be satisfied with having enough funding to complete projects that interest me, and I think I could work in such a model. Many people (scientists, academics, even some artists) currently receive funding from public and private organizations to do work that is deemed important; it seems perfectly reasonable to enable people to give money directly to creators, bypassing largely unnecessary intermediaries and stimulating creation directly. If, as Boyle says, the public domain is undervalued, expanding it as much as possible seems to be the best thing we could do, for the greatest public good – not just wealth and ownership, but freedom to learn, use, express, and create.

I admit, many issues, including piracy, would still have to be resolved, but I think it’s significant that this system would put more power in the hands of an individual to acquire the resources necessary to sustain their creativity. One problem in the cultural landscape is production-end entities conditioning the viewer/listener/audience  to consume particular types of products based on their spectacle, popularity, etc. Whereas I have no guilt (though maybe a little shame) about downloading 2012 via torrent, I would willingly pay to support intriguing projects with the assurance that my money is going directly to the creator. The sales experiments of artists with established fan-bases such as Radiohead and Girl Talk show this model can work; crowdfunding opens it to unknown artists, with the above sites allowing new talent to be discovered.

The current prevalence of appropriating, recycling, adopting (or what have you) of copyrighted cultural materials points to both the necessity and inevitability of that use for modern discourse. Landes and Posner are correct that the public domain provides a “source of free inputs” for creation, but they fail to see that, in our digital age, anything and everything must be fair game. Crowdfunding of course won’t come close to solving everything, but I think it could help.

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4 thoughts on “Crowdfunding and the Potential of an Infinite Public Domain – by “Brendan S”

  1. Entranced by Boyle’s writing, I forgot to question his assumption that patronage would lead to the production of “state-sponsored” works or art that caters to the elite, that such a system would be essentially undemocratic. Brendan, I appreciated how you related our reading to crowdfunding. However, in the old days of patronage, the work would not belong to the public: in fact, it would often be locked up in a private gallery, library, or collection.

    Is crowdfunding really similar to patronage model, or is it closer to the academic and scientific system of public and private grants, where funders pay for results that can be appreciated freely by the whole public?

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  2. Kickstarter is an interesting website, and I like the idea of crowdsourcing. I think it’s genuinely appealing because it lets the masses get together and combine forces to really have an impact. The idea of crowdsourcing reminds me of Howard Dean’s campaign, where he raised more than Cheney did at an expensive, elitist dinner by having people send in small donations online. if the sites are easy to use and have enough exposure, crowdsourcing could potentially be a force to be reckoned with.

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  3. I tried Kickstarter to try to fund my webcasting project, they told me it wasn’t creative and didn’t allow me, but they did allow a webcasting radio station, I feel discriminated against

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  4. its an interesting way to get a dream or project fund. I noticed a growing amount of sites for specific projects or tasks, like band funding, crowd design, furniture making and more.

    I am happy to see crowdsourcing and I hope it will work for both. There are so many ideas that can not get funds, for what ever reason, and crowd-funding is one extra way.

    What I like is that people can give money and be part of it. Its what people want. Be part of something they feel passionate about.

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