Sunday, February 06, 2005

Copyright, celebrity & the prestige economy

I wonder if anyone else has noticed, as I think I just have, that curtailing copyrights has the power not only to change who gets to distribute what kinds of creativity but also how people strive for and attain social status.

In particular, I think it could be the end of the entertainment celebrity or star in the late-twentieth century sense. Who will plunk down for blockbuster marketing if no one has an airtight monopoly on the images and story connected with the movie? In such a world, I doubt we'd be having a guy like Arnold being governor of California. No blockbusters, no governators.

Likewise, any aspiring Britney Spears would find it hard to find an agent: Who will go into the business of representing people who are soon likely to be "representable" (as in copy-able) by anyone? So the means of selection for creative prestige would be very different. And in a world where the United States weren't famous most of all for "personalities" like Michael Jackson, I can't help thinking that foreign relations and all kinds of things in the world would be different too.

I think most people instinctively react to a removal of financial incentive as like the opening of a trap door through which, for all practical purposes, all incentive whatsoever falls, and with it goes civilization. But to my mind, material wealth comes in a distant second as incentivizer beside status. If the Creative Commons movement can just engineer things in such a way that innovators are guaranteed notoriety, I believe we have a basis for an economy as thriving as anything we've had since coming down from the trees.

The Blogosphere might just be a miniature model of a copyright-free or copyright-curtailed world. Viewing the blogosphere as a prestige economy makes it seem natural that it has drawn in so many people and so much creative investment--and to the frustration of investors that it thrives without the flow of currency. What's flowing is prestige. With regard to prestige, status and influence, the blogosphere is like what the physicists call a new degree of freedom. That means human energy flows into it like heat from a hot body brought in contact with a cold one.

The effect of our current laws and economic system seems to me mainly to be the size of sphere in which one's relative status is measured. Before there were copyrighted records to sell, an Elvis Presley would not have become famous outside his home county or the cities he could afford to tour on modest pay...or he would not have risen so fast that others wouldn't have risen right along side him, diminishing his ability to stand out like a giant.

But a post-copyright Elvis might well not have to be more than tops in his community--whether regional or cyber--to reap top rewards. That's because he wouldn't be competing with a pangalactic Elvis who was selling records at mass-market prices and emanating everywhere from the local broadcaster of Clear Channel. A country or a world like this might not only give birth to a wider variety of interesting things, it would create more rightful pride, a more equitable distribution of prestige, more hope and fewer dashed dreams--because creative success could be enjoyed by more people.

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