A common line of thinking in capitalist society goes something like this: without proper incentives, people will cease to produce useful items. Putting aside counter-notions such as the altruistic impulse, this mostly bears true. Materialism reigns supreme in our modern world, and value reflects what can be produced, sold, acquired and consumed.
Yet some things that can be produced are not necessarily reflective of the capital incentive, even though they may occupy a position in a marketplace. Take, for example, art.
In most developed nations, creative expression is afforded protections, based to one extent or another on an implied commercial incentive. American copyright, for example, was constitutionally enshrined “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”
This incentive, reinforced by social mythologies such as “rock stardom,” is still powerful enough — at least in theory — to inspire some to make art. Whether such activity produces actual monetary reward is another matter. Thankfully, capital incentive is not the sole driver of creativity, constitution be damned. Many repeatedly commit acts of expression for reasons specific or ineffable, often with nary a thought of lucre.
Attention is another powerful incentive for creators, which is why “rock stars” rarely seem happier for all their riches. But attention has always been at a premium, perhaps more so than dollars. In this day and age, with so many competing channels of information, winning — and maintaining — attention is that much more arduous.
The difficulty in achieving attention is somewhat mitigated by new platforms for exposure. However, these platforms — often operated by large technology companies incubated in content agnosticism — are flooded by countless other attention-seekers. This considerably affects the odds of capturing mindshare unless a partnership is possible, in which case one has already met or exceeded a certain threshold of awareness. Accidental virality does occur, but it is rarely an “accident.”
Maximizing exposure with even the simple goal of winning attention takes an investment of time, if not money. Some kind of return on investment is a reasonable expectation of those doing the investing. Typically this is a promise, if not a guarantee, of revenue. Here you have the entire premise for our entertainment industries, which over decades have built powerful empires by enticing those who make art to exchange their constitutional endowments for the chance to enter the marketplace (as well as up-front enticements, such as “advance” monies, etc.).
As fucked up as this system may have been, it did work for some (mostly the entertainment companies).
These days, revenue is often scarce at the outset, although certain platforms of exposure can be used to “pre-sell” expression, provided there are potential patrons to whom one can appeal. There are success stories, and there are broken hearts. In this respect, these new engines of investment aren’t so different than the gatekeepers of yore, who wielded absolute authority over what was allowed to be marketed and sold. Nowadays, such power increasingly belongs to the “crowd.” (The difference between “crowd” and “mob” is sometimes negligible.)
It is clear that capital is not a prerequisite of creative expression. However, it is necessary to eat and pay the rent. Which is why those who endeavor to make expression a vocation rather than a hobby are concerned about the lack of structural support for their labors.
So, the next time you encounter someone who says that incentives (such as copyright) are unnecessary to the creation of art, you can feel free to nod your head in vigorous agreement while giving them a solid kick in the shin.