Friday, April 4, 2008

An Open Letter to Andrew Keen

Mr. Keen, I was recently reading your book The Cult of the Amateur when I came across this passage:

"Kelly argues that in the future, instead of making money on the sale of books, authors can 'sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, sponsorship, periodic subscriptions - in short, all the many values that cannot be copied.' It's the old razor blade business model. The book is but a giveaway, and the writer will supposedly make money from consulting gigs, book signings, and public lectures.

But books aren't razors, and reading has nothing in common with shaving."

Having finished your book, I can say with authority that it's a load of sensationalist drivel not fit to see print. However, the above quote seems to be the most egregious misuse of rhetoric among the many that you've committed. You see, when we say that something follows the razors and blades business model, we mean that their business model shares something in common with it. In literary terms, this is called a simile. It's razors and blades, by the way - the whole idea is that those two things were sold separately and at different levels of profit. In business terms, this is called cross-subsidy. You give no compelling reason why this should not apply to books. I'll help you out; use the same tactic that people have used to argue against cross-subsidies when large companies do it. The cross-subsidy is an internalized cost which can only be used by large players in a given market, producing an unfair advantage for established competitors. That, at least, is an argument that has some ground.

Even then, you offer no solution to the dilemma of the artist. You say that an artist shouldn't give their work away, but you also say that rampant piracy makes it impossible for an artist to make any money. Kelly is offering a way for piracy to become irrelevant to the artist - for the free spread of art to be a good thing. What you offer is resistance to change. Since you'll never encourage enough people to stay off the net, the only option is government interference.

Government interference is not a solution to the extensive copyright problems faced in this country. If there were a massive database against which you could check copyright claims ... maybe you could make it work. The people wouldn't like it, but you might be able to make it work. No database like that exists though, and it never will, because that isn't how copyright works. Copyright doesn't require that a person register or even inform the government. The instant that I write something, it's covered by copyright law. Secondly, there's such a thing as "fair use doctrine", which means that sometimes when I use copyrighted work it's okay (parody, education, criticism, commentary, etc.). That's why I won't get in trouble for quoting from your book. So not only would this database have to constantly update and search through copyrighted works, but it would also have to make judgments on what is and isn't fair use. I don't think I need to tell you what a gross loss of freedom that sort of system would impose.

If you're going to write idiotic garbage like that, at least propose a solution - so that I can ridicule that too.

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