Sustainable Models for Creativity in the Digital Age

One of the recurrent questions that people have about the future of the Internet is, So how are creators going to make money in the digital environment?  The good news is that the Free Culture Forum – a Barcelona-based international gathering of free software, free culture, creators and policy activists – has addressed these very questions in a major “how to” guide that was just released.   

In “Sustainable Models for Creativity in the Digital Age,” the FCF affirms: 

We can no longer put off re-thinking the economic structures that have been producing, financing and funding culture up until now.  Many of the old models have become anachronistic and detrimental to civil society.  The aim of this document is to promote innovative strategies to defend and extend the sphere in which human creativity and knowledge can prosper freely and sustainably.

This report is aimed at policy reformers, citizens and free/libre culture activists to provide them practical tools to understand the policy options and revenue models, and the importance of the commons in the new digital marketplaces.

In a companion FCF document, “Declaration:  Sustainable Models for Creativity,” people are invited to endorse a statement about the future of creativity in the digtal age.  The FCF is trying to drive home several key points, among them that:

  • “copyright as we currently know it is counterproductive, and the restructuring of existing models is inevitable and imperative;
  • attempts by some entities and corporations to profit through the creation of monopolies, often with the active connivance of government, should be brought to a stop;
  • the sharing and exchange of ideas is of vital importance to culture and we must work towards maximizing governmental or institutional initiatives that understand and support these dynamics; and
  • it is necessary and important that people be compensated for socially valuable creative work.”

The FCF report looks at many feasible economic models for supporting creativity on the Internet.  Its list “starts with the models that are most similar to those traditionally accepted by the cultural industries, and moves towards those that are closer to the idea of sharing that pertains to our age. Many of these models are currently actively implemented and are already working. We need to expand these conditions by removing barriers that limit their growth.”

The list:

1. Pay for what you get.  Or some advice for the restructuring of the cultural industries: the public is prepared to pay for cultural products or goods as long as they deem the price to be reasonable and paying does not restrict their freedom. Make it easy and accessible; make it affordable; don’ t make it compulsory, static and criminalised, make it optional and offer choice. Pay fair wages when you contract professional work.

2. Advertising.  Between bombarding users with ads and the total absence of ads, there are intermediate, ethical options: Selective ads (accepting advertisements only from projects with affinities); giving users control over the consumption of ads; allowing users to request ads related to the article they are reading, for instance, …

3. Pay for a Plus.  Sharing copies helps creators to build up a reputation, which then becomes the base for charging for services and other things that cannot be copied, such as live performances, works-for-hire, specially designed gadgets, attractive physical copies…

4. Freemium.  Freemium is a business model that works by offering basic services, or a basic downloadable digital product, for free, while charging a premium for advanced or special features.

5. Contributions.  A contribution-based model enables users to donate sums of money in order to help sustain a given project or enterprise. The more involved and respected users feel, the better this system works.

6. Crowdfunding.  Enabling individual citizens or entities to contribute to a cultural enterprise by becoming stakeholders. This contribution can take the form of an investment before the work has been created, or via micro or macro credits or donations towards existing works.

7. Commons-based strategies and distributed value creation.  The providers of commercial platforms for cooperation share their revenues with the creators who produce the material that makes their services valuable, while commoners are able to freely share and exploit the commons.

8. Collective Financing System.  A flat-rate on internet connections can be consider only if it implies an equitable and democratic resource-pooling system and recognizes citizens rights to share and re-use works freely.

9. Basic income.  When connecting the issue of free culture to visions of large-scale social transformations in capitalistic economies, the basic income idea propose to sustain the society as a productive body. A guaranteed basic income is a way to avoid precarity and redistribute economic wealth.

10. Public funding/policy making.  We believe that in the context of a society of tax payers, culture must receive a share of public investment due to its undeniable social value. Social funding should not be seen as a substitute for public responsibilities in relation to the funding of culture and Free/Libre culture should not constitute an anomaly.

Publicly funded works should be released, after a reasonable commercial life span, for circulation on digital networks so that the public who paid for them can access and re-use them.

Tax deductions should promote micro-funding and the release of works without restrictive licences.

The public should have the option to contribute to deciding how this public investment in culture is shared out.

Alternative distribution channels should be encouraged. Cultural policies must work towards achieving greater cultural diversity and sustainable collaboration platforms.

Networks of independent producers, distributors and authors should be supported, and they should be represented on public broadcasting.

Impact statements should be a prerequisite for the introduction of any new cultural policy. We must analyze the effects that proposed regulations would have on on the cultural and knowledge commons before they are implemented.

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The FCF report also addresses the role of the commons and the public domain in business these days: 

“The new business models that consider collective production as a context that needs to be nurtured and safeguarded, and not simply as a context to exploit, are based on the premise that cooperation is compatible with market dynamics. The most evocative practical examples stem from free software communities.  The “output” is shared under non-restrictive licenses, allowing third parties to use and modify it as long as the same freedoms are obligatorily applied to derived works.  This creates a commons that is constantly improved by successive contributions, while not preventing the commercial exploitation of the knowledge and skills arising from them and of the works themselves.

Users become generators of value, and join a virtuous circle of production and consumption that they benefit from.

Meanwhile, in this new context, it is necessary to defend, promote and implement the conditions that enable online collaboration.

Embroiled in a different logic, the traditional cultural industries want to keep feeding off collective production, without responding to the collaborative logic that is now current thanks to the Internet. These industries try to keep imposing appropriation frameworks onto the commons, becoming entrenched in a predatory idea of culture (the economy of scarcity), which is totally at odds with the philosophy of free culture (the economy of abundance).”

An extended version of the entire FCF how-to manual can be downloaded here as a pdf or browsed here online.  There are some great resources in the report, including an extensive bibliography.  Full disclosure:  I participated in the FCF deliberations last October (2010) and have endorsed the declaration and report.