I’ve been downloading some really exquisite fanvids this week (for those not in the know, they’re basically homemade music videos of songs with spliced TV clips) and came to a site that actually charged for fanvids. My first reaction was disbelief, “Who does she think she is?” and then I thought about how much bandwidth a single person downloading a single video can chew up. We take for granted that you can get so much entertainment for free on the internet: I have a steadily-growing, detailed list of over 500 fanfics saved so I can find whatever I’m in the mood for, and all of those stories (some of which are novel-sized and almost all of which are of publishable quality if it weren’t for that darned copyright infringement) are free. I read at least ten free web comics every morning. I’m not stealing these things, I’m not ripping CDs or burning DVDs (partly due to honesty and partly because I don’t have a high-speed connection that would make that convenient). I remember for the first few years Napster was working, I might download a single song by a one-hit wonder, but I would consider it stealing to get a whole album, because if I like it that much, I should vote with my wallet and encourage the artist to make more. But I’ve become inundated by the idea that I shouldn’t have to pay for entertainment, and that if I am asked to pay, I can and should go elsewhere.
Now, as someone who hopes to make a living as a writer someday, I’m getting a little concerned at this idea the net creates that everyone should be able to get whatever high-quality entertainment they want for free, because I think it may set up a mentality where anyone who puts out a physical book or magazine and dares ask money for it will be laughed out of business, and similarly, people will see micropayments on the web as a hassle they don’t have to put up with. And it’s not even accurate or fair to say things are free on the net: someone has to pay for hosting and bandwidth; either advertisers or the artist/writer themselves, and people don’t like the idea of paying subscription fees; they take their business (such as it is) elsewhere.
I’m just worried that while, yes, people will always be driven to make art and share it with the world, there will be two nasty outcomes of this trend. First of all, there is no quality control on the net, no standard to aspire to, which means there’s a whole lot of junk to wade through. Second, I think most writers and artists out there would agree that the quality of their work changes dramatically when they have time to devote to their craft as a career rather than a hobby. If no one can ask money for their work, if everyone has to get a day job despite their potential as artists or writers, ultimately the quality of the work that is possible goes down.