This piece is in response to a message of enormous importance advanced by Douglas Rushkoff about the history and structure of business and money, but I feel an urge to address some specific concerns about the trade around creative work for which the artifacts are purely representational—that is to say digital—made of bits.

Let me double-underscore here that I have no reason to believe that Mr. Rushkoff holds any particular position I mention below, in fact I'm pretty confident he doesn't. This is more of an attempt to characterize the landscape of the business of creative work and provide a perspective for moving forward.

So you produce content and you want to get paid for it: Fair.

Observation:
If people access that content through channels you don't control, you can't make them pay you any money for it.
Apparent Solution:
Control the channel and you can enforce payment.

How do you do that? Through legal and technical mechanisms, of course.

First you say it is wrong to take stuff without paying for it. I'll set aside the argument that copying data doesn't deprive the owner of the original and just say fair enough for now.

Now, how are you going to police it?

Let's first divide the consumption of content into public performances and private consumption. Handling public performance is easy: just watch and/or listen for them. Warning: you may have to pay for that.

Private consumption is a little bit harder. For that you need to do one of two things: break peoples' equipment and media so they have to comply, or surveil everybody so you can frighten them into compliance.

An Arms Race No Matter How You Slice It

Both of these ideas are completely untenable for reasons that should be obvious, but I'll spell them out anyway. For the former, any system to which you have to add cryptographic components in order to ultimately cripple its functionality faces an uphill economic battle. It will always be cheaper for somebody to produce a noncompliant (and more efficient) system, unless you make such systems illegal. Making noncompliant systems illegal has worked in the past, like with cars, but in the advent of the age of the fab lab, this avenue is not especially durable.

PS: Consumer manufacturing industry: you're next.

The alternative is to monitor everybody for compliance, which effectively means planting a bug. On everybody. You can monitor perimeters but that is leaky enough to be useless, especially when there is anonymous crypto P2P handy and you can put 30 terabytes in a backpack.

Not only does this solution fall prey to the same economic problem as cryptographic content protection measures in which the fox ultimately guards the henhouse, it's a lot scarier when said fox is too lazy to bother. Consider that the absence of a mobile phone signal has been used as evidence in criminal cases, to the effect that going off the grid is now sufficient cause for suspicion. That is not a world I want to live in.

There is also the upcoming avenue of utility computing and data storage, where you simply put your content in the cloud. You may think you could offer the content as a service and protect it cryptographically, but cryptography of this kind will always be cheaper to circumvent than to enforce. You could police peoples' leased data stores for your content and punish them accordingly, but they could just as easily hide it from you, or even more effectively not use the cloud to store content at all. Unless of course we make that illegal too.

Finally, it's feasible to just assume that everybody is a pirate and tax them, then redistribute the money to content producers. Great. How are you going to divvy it up? Top-40 charts? New York Times bestseller list? How do you know that these figures correlate? How can you say that the people who already successfully sell a lot of content are the same ones whose content is being copied for free rather than being purchased? Oh, and how about those administration costs?

This was the solution Lawrence Lessig proposed in his book Remix. I'm impressed. Can you tell?

Each of these technical and legal machinations marches straight down a dark and ugly path of control and information asymmetry, and all in the name of trying to capture the value of artifacts for which the cost of minting an exact copy is asymptotically nothing.

I propose instead a change of attitude

I don't have a lot of experience selling content for a living but I do have plenty of experience inventing method, which can be understood as content for making content. Part of this process, a lot of the time, entails inventing at least a portion of how the result gets from one place to another. So I wondered: what does the commerce around creative work look like without completely controlling the distribution channel?

Rather than look at my content uniformly as a product to sell, I'll consider at least some of it as a currency with which I purchase your attention. Then install a mechanism, or ideally as many mechanisms as I can come up with, which commute that attention to transactions of material value.

Note that the same content might be product in some contexts and currency in others.

At the core of this attitude lies the notion that if you consume my work in any serious quantity, you probably agree with me. If you agree with me, then you're probably amenable to supporting me to produce more work which is similar. You also may be in the market for the litany of other things I can do.

For ideas on what that looks like, I defer to Kevin Kelly, who has already covered the topic extensively. The gist of it is that in an environment where the cost of duplicating a good is asymptotically free, charge for that which can't be copied. I concede that he glazes over specific methods of carrying that out, but over the next while that's what I plan to explore.

Before I continue, I would like to introduce what I submit should be the mantra for all content producers:

Make it stupidly easy to deal with me. Make dealing with me easier than going around me. Make it obvious that dealing directly with me is the easiest route to getting something of value from me.

Apple gets this idea, but you might say Apple has buckets of capital with which it can set up an infrastructure to both manage and reinforce it. I say fine, and point you to Jonathan Coulton, who seems to get it as well.

I concede that Coulton happens to appeal to a niche of well-paid, forward-thinking, voracious internet users; it's hard to say how well he would fare if he didn't. That said, it does seem prudent to go where the money is.

Also worth noting are people like Everett Bogue and Leo Babauta, though their products appear largely to be the instruction manuals for their own lifestyles (though really, what isn't these days?). This observation is interesting in that odd, self-referential way; I'll leave its implications as an exercise to you, dear reader.

There is a commercial unit of creative output that I believe we have grown overly accustomed to, and that is what I'll call the opus. To acquire an opus we put an arbitrary quantity of effort in and get a uniform and infinitely replicable artifact of content out. Like any other product it's a speculative bet that it will net more revenue than it costs to produce. Books can take years to write. I still haven't finished mine; I arguably haven't started it. Movies can cost millions of dollars (though I submit it was the economics of distribution that enabled them to cost so much). Those costs have to be defrayed somehow.

That said, I'm not sure if we should behave as if we can capture anything close to the whole value of an opus, which tend to be arbitrarily valuable. That was a fiction promulgated by the entertainment industry of the 20th century. Become a star and get rich was the story, but I believe the future holds a narrative which casts a much higher number of content producers who are comfortable, but not nearly as affluent. The opus will always leak, and it will leak a lot. It will leak profusely no matter how much effort you put into plugging the holes. That effort, naturally, eats into your bottom line, and it doesn't take much to sink it. Instead, learn to work with the leaks.

The e-book, to use an example, is a purely representational artifact, which means in a networked environment it will leak like a sieve. People will read it because they want the content, but they're going to buy it for one (or more) of three reasons: either because it's easier to pay for it than to go digging for it, because they want to ensure the integrity of the work (which I believe will become a concern of increasing significance), or simply because they want to support the author. Leave the commerce around the artifact itself for paper books and make that an experience unto itself.

For the record I am confident that paper will never completely go away; there is just too much you can do with it.

For the foreseeable future, our society will grow increasingly computation-heavy. By this I mean that we will spend an increasing proportion of our effort just trying to figure out what to do with ourselves. This is ultimately a good thing, because it means a more efficient use of energy and distribution of physical resources, as well as a richer and more vibrant culture. At the end of the day, however, we still have to move atoms around. It's just that we now have a much greater wherewithal with which to contemplate their shape.

My advice is this: Do yourself a favour and scrap any notion that you can create value that can't be traced with an unbroken line to this arrangement of atoms. Say it with me: The value of my output is no more than the value of the positions of those atoms. This figure is of course not found by tallying up widgets, but in the abridgement of labour, the alleviation of suffering, the dispelling of monotony, the expediting of wise decisions and the precursors of innovation.

I'm tempted to call this principle neo-physiocracy to underscore this adherence to the laws of nature, but it implies too deep a relationship to the (paleo) physiocrats, who had funny ideas about what the natural order was. Moreover, the moniker seems already to be taken. Though it's more about the shape of physical space and what it takes to produce it than physical space itself. Toponomy, perhaps?

Commerce around creative work is a topic of extreme importance to me. Though having spent a decade writing the very systems that either lock up information or spread it around, I have serious doubts about the long-term viability of the opus-for-money trade as an overarching strategy, at least as it pertains to artifacts that are made exclusively of bits. I'm not saying it's completely futile, I'm just saying that we can't reliably treat it like a straight trade anymore. There are better options that achieve the same or better results, and I am making it my mission to systematize them.