Making paper for joy and profit
What is a sale composed of, beyond the product and its monetary value? Well, let's take an example. What if you were selling a stack of paper for $4? I might offer you $2 for that stack of paper, and you might refuse. If I begged you, you might still refuse. But what if I were to say that I needed the paper to distribute important lessons to underprivileged schoolchildren? Then, you might agree, and perhaps be extra generous, giving me the paper for $1. I know that I, personally, would do it under such circumstances, because it is socially beneficial -- I would not be gaining more cash, but I would gain a strong motivation - the knowledge that my work has benefited my society, that I've made a social contribution. And, as many of us know... the best job is one that you enjoy doing, not necessarily the best paid.
Now, what happens if I take a book, made from your paper, and throw it in the bin? I've taken your contribution to society, and tossed it aside. Now, all that you've done is make $1, waste energy, and waste trees. One might certainly consider that a form of theft -- a "social theft", if you will, since not only have I stolen from you, the producer, I've also stolen your social contribution from those it would benefit. After all, you didn't expect that his paper would only get to its intended audience if they happened to meet a retailer's strangely flexible idea of a good customer. No -- you expected that supply and demand would work in society's favour, to distribute said paper as widely and as efficiently as possible. You expected your contribution to reach its audience as best it could, regardless of economic conditions.
Writing books... for art's sake?
OK, lets move up the production chain a little. Think about writers for a moment. Whether they create romance, science fiction, or poetry, most have a message to get across to readers -- perhaps an emotional impact, rather than an intellectual message, but it's a message, nonetheless. Many would say that no one would be a writer for the money. This, then, is a social contribution which we want our work to make. What if the book's publisher did not distribute every possible copy, simply to falsely inflate prices? Well, then, this publisher would not be fulfilling that implicit contract. We have found our "social thief", willing thief or not, in this particular example, and it is the publisher.
This lack of fulfillment for implicit social goals applies not only to writers, of course, but to any artist. Any artist, that is, who creates with a social goal in mind. A prime example, at the moment, is found in the music industry.
It is, of course, possible to distribute music digitally, with very high fidelity, to everyone who is uses the Internet -- an incredible and rapidly growing number of people. Further, it is possible to distribute this music quickly, and at very low costs. Further still, this distribution method not only spreads music well, but has closely associated forums in which to discuss such "messages" as an artist's music might contain, and allow the ideas at the heart of them to grow and truly begin to contribute to society in remarkable ways.
But how does this concept of social contribution alter the status quo? Well, it alters things in one very simple, but important way -- artists need to choose a side. The question for producers of art is this: do you really make art, which has a message -- a social contribution -- to spread, or do you simply have a product, which should be spread in a limited fashion, if that is what's required to ramp up demand, and generate more cash?
It is by no means proven that digital distribution would lower profits. With cheaper online prices and easier access, uptake would likely be much greater, which may well compensate for reduced price. Even today, when most digital music spreads freely, without cost, music industry sales have not been proven to be affected. But let's say, in a worst case scenario, that artists would lose money by distributing their work digitally. If it this music is really art, a form of social contribution, then why insist on $2? Why not allow vast numbers of people across the world to gain benefit from the message of your art very quickly, and accept $1 instead of $2? Wouldn't that spread your message much quicker, yet still provide you with ample compensation for your work?
I feel that it is time for those would would claim social motives to choose a side. The days of huge corporations which do nothing but publish and distribute information in tediously slow and awkward ways are rapidly disappearing. No longer is it possible to claim that art and other forms of information have to cost a lot simply because of production and distribution economics. If middlemen still claim so, then they should be declared redundant "social thieves", and swept aside.
It is now trivial to distribute information en masse, and at high speed. All who claim that their work is primarily for social benefit need to stop and think at this juncture. Those who create computer software have been aware of such issues for some time, and many have chosen to release programs very cheaply or freely for precisely this reason.
Similarly, if, for example, you happened to be a publisher of low-cost informational books to aid disadvantaged groups, then it is now time to put that book online, and make it much cheaper, in accordance with your lower online publishing costs. Musicians, singers, and songwriters, who claim that they are truly artists working for social benefit need to do the same. It is simply not possible to claim that your primary goal is to spread social benefit, be it a simple information, helpful tools, or an artistic "message", when you refuse to provide that information in the most accessible way. It really is time to choose a side, and with a little thought, it's easy to figure out which what your social contribution is, and, in turn, where the social thieves are.