Paying the Piper: Is Culture Ever Free?

Paying the Piper: Is Culture Ever Free?

In 2009, The Hurt Locker prompted a great deal of controversy, and not just because it was about a controversial war. Thousands of consumers who wanted to watch the movie downloaded it freely instead of paying for tickets. The movie’s producer, Nicolas Chartier, went berserk—chastising illegal downloaders online and filing a lawsuit against tens of thousands of users of BitTorrent, a file-sharing system. Ranting against “free culture” pirates and downloaders, Chartier mocked, “Please feel free to leave your house open every time you go out and please tell your family to do so, please invite people in the streets to come in and take things from you, not to make money out of it by reselling it but just to use it for themselves and help themselves.” The pirates, of course, fought back, arguing for their right to free consumption of cultural products, to hell with movie industry profits.

My sympathies were partially with the pirates. I was a punk rocker as a kid and remember those heady days when I got hopped up on the creation of a free (or close to free) culture. My friends and I thrilled, during the go-go 1980s, at hearing that cassette taping was destroying “corporate rock.” I was all take-it-to-the-man-and-free-the-music. I participated in Do It Yourself (DIY) culture—kids starting up record labels by releasing cassette tapes recorded in basements and performing shows in houses for free. So I heard echoes of my adolescent self in those free-culture pirates attacking Chartier. But now, dare I say, I am older. I’ve been a cultural producer myself—writing books; penning essays; teaching college; and, on rare occasion, advising moviemakers—and things look different to me now. I’m more sympathetic to The Hurt Locker’s producer than I would have been during my salad days.

Unlike my elitist and snobby punk friends from the 1980s, free-culture warriors have everything on their side today. We can get our hands on “free” culture faster than ever before, with Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, Google Books, and a slew of illegal sites. But there’s a hitch about which Chartier rightfully warned: we haven’t figured out how to pay culture producers for the time they spend creating the goods we watch, read, or trade online. Consumers might do well, but producers of culture don’t, at least not in old-fashioned, putting-food-on-your-plate terms. And this isn’t just in Hollywood, where people still do fairly well no matter what. The process is happening in all sectors of creative work, including the three I want to examine here: literary journalism, book writing, and college teaching. Trying to make a living in any of these areas today is difficult and might become impossible in the near future.

Consider some basic facts about the act in which you’re engaging now: the essay you are reading has been written for a magazine published by a university press and funded partially by subscription...

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