On Saturday I spoke at the first Open Rights Group conference. Admittedly the title – ORGCON – made it sound like a 1980’s Dr Who villain, but what can you do?
I was part of the first panel of the day; the topic of the panel was “Thriving in the Real Digital Economy”; and (for a Saturday morning) it was early – so I’m not quite sure how much sense I made. But here is what I tried to say:
There are many kinds of art where there is obviously an ‘original’ whenever you create a work. I’m using the word ‘original’ in a technical sense, to mean an instance of the work, either produced by or on behalf of the artist, and which has some attributes which aren’t preserved if the work is copied.
With a painting for example, the painting itself is obviously the original. While it’s certainly possible to copy it in various ways, none of them capture the whole experience of the original. So for example you can capture the colours of a painting under one set of lighting conditions by taking a photo. But change the lighting around the painting, and the colours often change in interesting ways due to the thickness of the paint, the properties of the pigments used, and the way light diffuses through the materials. None of this is reflected in the photo.
Other properties of a painting are even less likely to be captured by a copy, such as the construction of the canvas; its weight, feel and smell; and the change in its colours with age.
So while a photo of a painting is certainly better than nothing, the original is much better, and so more valuable.
Equally, many artworks don’t have an original. Most obviously, anything created digitally doesn’t, because a digital copy of it is in all respects identical to it.
Most recorded music is created digitally. It is created on computers and then copied verbatim onto media such as CDs, so if you have an uncompressed version of a song, your string of 1’s and 0’s are identical to those in the mastered version of the song produced by the artist. There is therefore no sense in which the artist’s version is any better or more valuable than yours
But the problem for an artist is that having an original allows him or her to control copying, and so make a living. Without an original, the amount of copying is only limited by its cost, and the cost of making a digital copy is now virtually zero. So musicians are now being forced to find other ways to create originals.
The most obvious sign of this is the resurgence of live music. A recording of a concert is a poor second to actually being there, so artists can charge a premium for the experience.
There has also been an explosion in the number of box sets and greatest hits releases, which have tried to add back in some of the qualities of an original with special packaging and other non-music features. But of course there is a limit to the number of times you can sell the same music in a different box.
The music industry in recent years has been publicly obsessed with finding ways to limit digital copying, but they admit in private that they are on a hiding to nothing.
So the question that I think makes more sense to address is, how can the concept of an original evolve in the digital age, so that artists can continue to make a living?
I didn’t get any suggestions from the audience, but then, it was early…