The worth of creativity: From jerk to troll in three easy steps


I was finishing up the draft of one (long) essay for the next Cites & Insights, looking at posts about the future (but not one/two-year forecasts: that’s the second half), and got to a commentary by Jason Scott at ASCII, his weblog: Dated November 10, 2010, entitled “Your Roger Corman Future.

You may want to read the whole thing. It’s 2,500 words, plus 38 comments of varying length. Scott writes well and forcefully, even if he has one of the most unpleasant to read blog designs I’ve encountered: White text on a black background and, if you let the site specify the typeface, you get a bizarre monospaced (like Courier!) sans serif. His writing makes up for it, I think.

Scott does documentaries related to the history of computing (one on bulletin board systems, one on text adventures), along with a bunch of other things (he’s really good at saving tech-related stuff that would otherwise disappear entirely, and now works at the Internet Archive).

When he released GET LAMP, his package on text adventures (actually three documentaries “combined with a coin,” he priced it at $45, which isn’t bad for quality independent productions. And he’s grossed (not netted) six figures on it, which–as he says–makes him hot stuff where true indie filmmaking is concerned. (He’s also a whiz at Kickstarter, to be sure.)

But he got pushback…some of which resonated with what I’ve encountered, but Scott gets it in much more abhorrent ways.

All of which leads to this post.

The Premise: You’re Not Willing to Pay the Price for Some Creative Work That You Might Want to Read/See/Whatever

Here’s what all levels discussed below have in common. Somebody has created something (available in multiple copies). They, or their publisher or distributor, has set a price for copies, possibly one price for physical copies, another for digital copies.

You’re interested in that something, but you’re not willing to pay the price set by the publisher or creator.

The levels come in what you do about it.

Level 0: You don’t pay. If it’s available at the library, you borrow.

This is “level 0” because you’re not being a jerk at all. You’re exercising your entirely valid and reasonable option of not buying something because the price is higher than you’re willing to pay.

Nothing wrong here. Nothing at all.

Oh, and if a library you have access to is willing to pay the price and you choose to borrow it from the library? Good for you.

There’s a related level, where you’re also not being a jerk in any way, but it’s a level that only affects some creators and some would-be readers/viewers:

Level 0b: The creator asks for feedback on the price and you say it’s too high

Nothing wrong there either–at least if you’re not abusive in your response and don’t make a point of suggesting a “digital price” that essentially says to the creator “your time, energy and creativity aren’t worth squat.”

So: If I say “I have a new book prepared on Topic X. It’s 200 pages long or a 1MB PDF. I think $45 for a paperback, $55 for a hardcover, and $30 for a download is about right. What do you think?”

You’re being perfectly reasonable to respond “I wouldn’t pay more than $10 for the download or $15 for the paperback” or some variant on that.

If you say “You must offer the download for free” or “A 200-page paperback costs $8.50 to produce through Lulu, so $9 is the most you should charge” -well, now you’re starting to be a jerk. You’re explicitly saying that my (or Scott’s) work is not worth anything.

But let’s move on:

Level 1: You post public messages asserting that my price is outrageous and that only a price directly related to the cost of producing a single copy is reasonable (e.g., $0 or so for downloads)…or, for works involving a publisher, you blame the author for the price set by the publisher.

This assumes that I didn’t say “How much should I charge for this?” It’s not the same as saying “This might be interesting, but I’m not willing to pay $X.” it’s saying “It’s wrong for the creator to charge enough to yield any net revenue for his or her work”–perhaps not in those words, but in effect.

You’re being somewhat of a jerk. You’re telling the creator that creativity is worthless.

I’ve had that happen. You learn to live with it pretty quickly.

[Perhaps at this same level: You’re asked how much you would pay for something. You (several of you) say “I’d pay X.” The creator sets the (suggested) price at X. Nobody pays that amount. Not that that would ever happen…]

Level 2: You post negative reviews about the work, even though you haven’t read or seen it, based entirely on the price (or on assumptions about the work that you haven’t checked).

Now you’re being a major jerk: You’re trying to discourage other people from paying for creative work, since you know (or should know) that people look at star averages sometimes without actually reading the reviews. “Geez, the only review is one-star: It must be crap.”

I was looking up replacement string reels for my electric edger, to make sure I had the right part and approximate price–after two years’ use, it finally ran out of “string.” One site had three reviews, all of them highly negative. Why? In two cases, because the person purchased the wrong thing, and therefore it was a bad, bad thing. The third one was just mysterious.

Need I say Open Access: What You Need to Know Now–where a science blogger assailed the book because he/she assumed ALA had commissioned the report and, therefore, should release it for free (you know, since every scientific organization releases all the work appearing under the organization’s imprimatur absolutely for free, like the American Chemical Society), and a “reviewer” (possibly the same person) wrote a one-star “review” at Amazon that was based on a price I had no control over and an assumption that this was a “white paper” (presumably paid for in advance). (I normally wouldn’t link to Amazon, but since that’s where the review is…

This is the kind of thing that gets discouraging. And it’s the worst I’ve encountered. But not Scott: He’s been subjected to…

Level 3: You inform the creator (publicly or otherwise) that the asking price is outrageous and, therefore, you are wholly justified in looking for a pirated version, which you intend to do.

Now you’ve gone from jerk to troll (probably not the right word, but I still don’t like “pirate” for copyright infringement, even in this most blatant of cases): You’re saying “I want what you’ve done; I don’t think you deserve payment; therefore it’s ethical for me to break the law in order to acquire your work without paying you for it.”

Go read the post and comments. Scott says this sort of thing a whole lot more eloquently than I ever will.

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