In my entry yesterday, I mentioned that would contact the maker of Pol Pot’s Birthday to inquire about digital distribution. It turns out that Talmage Cooley, the filmmaker, would love uninhibited digital distribution of the film — but can’t afford it. It turns out that Cooley can scrape together the cash for the inexpensive royalties necessary to show the film in festivals but cannot afford the much higher fees that must be paid in order to webcast.
The recording companies continue to claim that if those distributing, performing, or reusing their work in other ways do not pay royalties, musicians will not be able to produce as much, or as good, music. This is fiction designed to sell both consumers and artists on an unjust, exploitative and inefficient system. Cooley’s experience is the reality of a expansive, pay-per-use, highly controlled and highly centralized system of permission and royalty-based access to ideas. It’s a reality where the vast majority of voices are systematically silenced by simple economics.
Independent artists and producers can’t pay expensive royalties for wide distribution of their work because they work is not commercially viable in the way that Hollywood and the RIAA member company’s products are. Their only available alternatives are degrees of silence.
It’s true that if Pol Pot’s birthday was distributed online and paid no royalties, the recording industry would get nothing. But it’s also true that the alternative — the more likely alternative and the one we have now — is for the film it to not be distributed at all; the music industry still get nothing.
In the latter case, the losers here are the independent filmmakers, whose work has its wings clipped systemically, and the consumers, who don’t get to see great independent film. This is a happy enough arrangement for big media of course. At worst, they break even. At best, consumers with lack of alternatives spend their time and their dollars on media that they can get access to. It is a fortunate coincidence that the remaining available films are produced by the large, established movie studios who are jointly owned, or in bed, with the large established recording companies. This is not a conspiracy: it’s a system optimized for the production of some sorts of content (the highly profitable kind) by disadvantaging and silencing available alternatives.