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Jeff Ward Wants My Writing — Free (4)

Peter Marshall, the British writer/photographer who produced hundreds (thousands?) of articles on photography for About.com, has some thoughtful comments about my recent posts on intellectual-property issues (see #1, #2, and #3) up at his blog, >Re: PHOTO, in his November 9, 2009 post, “Writing for Free.” Though he’s not a full-time working writer, Marshall did for some years generate a substantial part of his income by writing and publishing, so his thoughts on this subject are grounded in what I consider professional experience. That sets him apart from an amateur writer like Jeff Ward, whose attack on the Photography Criticism CyberArchive for its subscription-based premise sparked off this series of posts.

a1Marshall’s About.com essays, which I found always well-researched, easy to read, and useful, have since come down from that website, alas. What’s replaced it, by Liz Masoner, has much less substance and breadth. According to Marshall, About.com owns ongoing rights to his essays that make it impossible for the author to reprint them without buying out their interest. I empathize with his situation, while respecting him for respecting those agreements. A deal’s a deal. I hope at some point About.com relents and reverts subsidiary rights of this IP to Marshall; I’d certainly consider republishing them in the PCCA. (Full disclosure: I once invited Marshall to contribute to the Photography Criticism CyberArchive, but his contract with About.com prohibited his participation.)

PCCA logo

Because Marshall speaks as someone who at one point earned a living (the substantial part of one, anyhow) creating intellectual property, I take him seriously on that subject. I’d listen to him even if he got his IP back and decided to donate it to the Creative Commons — because I’m open to considering the opinion of anyone willing to put his money where his mouth is. Ward, on the other hand, not only has no track record (at least none that he makes public) as a maker of intellectual property with any market value, but has a more fundamental problem: He can’t make a plausible case for why I should let him have my writing — and the writings of dozens of others past and present, available by subscription at the Photography Criticism CyberArchive — free of charge. This reduces him to ad hominem attacks on me as a “luddite” and ad populum arguments (appeals to his readers’ fantasies of how things “should” work, of what “the future should be”), along with assertions of the “sincerity” of his “beliefs.”

Ward has no excuse for falling back on such lame devices. He’s a schooled debater, with a B.A. and an M.A. in rhetoric, and bills himself as a “rhetorician/photographer.” So he knows full well when he’s exaggerating wildly to shore up a specious argument. Take, for example, his melodramatic claim that, by seeking compensation for the time and expense involved in making this material available online, I’m “locking up the past behind a firewall.”

W. H. F. Talbot, The Pencil of Nature, 1844-46

W. H. F. Talbot, The Pencil of Nature, 1844-46

I neither own copyright to Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature nor claim any exclusive right thereto; it’s public-domain material. You can find the texts reprinted in various anthologies, and several facsimile editions have appeared over the years. Ward, who describes himself as “currently working on a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota,” can either find one of those sources in the U of M library or obtain it via interlibrary loan. Or — if he can overcome his suspicion of “monetized knowledge” — he can go online and buy a copy of one of the anthologies that includes Talbot’s text, or one of the facsimile reprints thereof. But if he wants the convenience of accessing it online, he has to pay the individual subscription rate for the Photography Criticism CyberArchive, or persuade his librarian to subscribe to it for the whole university. (Let me make that easy for him; he should contact Wendy Pradt Lougee, University Librarian, at (612) 624-1807; wlougee [at] tc [dot] umn [dot] edu.)

In expecting compensation for providing online access to this text I’m doing nothing more than what a print publisher does when charging money for a physical reprint of an historical text. This is not commonly understood as an impediment to the progress of knowledge; to the contrary. Scholars everywhere referred to Talbot’s text long before my project made its online debut in 2003, and have continued to do so since. So no “firewall” to which I hold the key stands between Ward (or anyone else) and “the past.” His “abhorrence” is gratuitous, mere debater’s grandstanding; any teacher of Rhetoric 101 would shoot it down in a New York minute.

jstor_logo Equally easy to refute is Ward’s assertion that his personal lack of interest in the subscription model somehow impeaches that model. If he’s truly working on a doctorate at the U of M then he’s likely using the university library, probably in part to access periodicals in his area(s) of research. How does the library enable him to read those periodicals? Either it subscribes to print editions that they shelve in the stacks, or it subscribes to a service that delivers microform versions on a fixed schedule, or it subscribes to an online delivery service such as JSTOR that houses 1000-plus academic journals and delivers their content to subscribers — paid for by some percentage of his tuition. One way or another, his professed disinterest in the subscription model notwithstanding, Ward as a grad student both enjoys the benefits of the subscription model and subsidizes it.

Similarly, his assertion that “Monetized knowledge is suspect, for me at least — I don’t buy it” is almost certainly a falsehood. Anytime one buys a book or magazine one pays cash for “monetized knowledge.” Whenever one pays tuition and other fees in order to attend classes in an institution or a private seminar, one “buys” monetized knowledge. Ward writes in his blog about his extensive library, presumably acquired by honest means (purchasing books instead of stealing them). If he’s enrolled at the U of M then he’s paying for entry into his classrooms. So, contrary to his testimony, he buys monetized knowledge all the time.

Ward’s conviction that “the future should be open and accessible repositories” represents nothing more than wishful thinking. It doesn’t constitute an argument, merely a conditional notion masquerading as an imperative. As he puts it (correctly), “The problem, of course, is what sort of funding model you use.” His answer? “I sincerely believe that it is the responsibility of institutions (government, museums, schools, even corporations) to feed into a public commons to further the public good.” That is, Ward “sincerely believes” that some vague, unidentified Others have the “responsibility” of ponying up whatever it costs in order to provide him with what he wants, free of charge — and he has no obligation to lift a finger to make that happen, or to share those expenses in any way.

UmnsealHaving thus “sincerely” solved “the problem [of ] what sort of funding model you use” with a blithe shifting of the burden onto “institutions (government, museums, schools, even corporations),” he leaves the working-out of the pesky practical details to Others (myself presumably included) while impatiently awaiting delivery of his desiderata. Ward “sincerely believes” that he’s done his part by acknowledging that “someone needs to pay for these pursuits.” Whoever that someone is, we know one thing: it’s not Ward.

These are elementary, almost childish errors of logic, embedded in a sophomoric level of argument — shockingly jejune for someone with training in rhetoric. This does not make the Dept. of English Literature and Rhetoric at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (where Ward did his undergraduate and master’s work in that field) look at all good. And — if he’s pursuing a doctorate in rhetoric — it raises questions about the standards of the equivalent department at the University of Minnesota. (I wonder what Dr. Laura J. Gurak, head of that department, would think of Ward’s performance here.)

Enough of this. You can’t imagine how tiresome it gets to play whack-a-mole with serial infringers like the Paul Kopeikin GalleryDoug RickardMutualArt Services, et al. And also their defenders, the ones who write in telling me to go easy on these perps because they “mean well” and are “providing a service.” And then the aggressive moochers like Ward, who advocate and even demand free access to intellectual property and other content but provide no help in subsidizing its online publication and dismiss with an airy wave any concern over the practical issues involved. Shoplifters, apologists, and freeloaders, the lot of them. Man Ray once wrote, “Taste and opinion will never replace intelligence and knowledge.” My late friend and colleague Richard Kirstel used to say, “Ignorance is a condition; dumbness is a commitment.”

imagesAfter 40-plus years in the content-provider business (and it is indeed a business), and 14 years in the web-publishing business (which is also a business, unless you undertake it merely as a hobby), I concluded circa Y2K that, for myself at least, I had reached “the end of free” in my professional relation to the internet. This doesn’t mean that I intend to dismantle either The Nearby Café or the New Eyes Project, the two open-access websites I publish, or to charge access fees to their visitors. Nor do I plan to charge admission to this blog. (Though sharp-eyed readers will notice that I’ve installed a donation plug-in, of which I invite one and all to avail themselves if in a generous mood). It simply means that I’d come to a point where I had to justify spending as much time, energy, and money as I do in online publishing without any tangible return.

What fruits of my own labors I presently publish and distribute free of charge on the internet, and have published and distributed through this technology since 1995, I consider more than sufficient as tithing, potlatch, or contribution to the “creative commons” from a freelance writer and an unsubsidized independent scholar. I don’t believe my pragmatic decisions in that regard merit either oppositional harangue or public shaming of the sort Ward attempts in his attack on the Photography Criticism CyberArchive.

open-source-logoI’m hardly alone in perceiving as inevitable “the end of free” on the internet — which doesn’t mean the death of the Creative Commons movement or the end of open-source software. It means acceptance of the fact that some material is and will continue to be designated as free access/open-source, while some isn’t, and that users need to understand and respect the differences. Lawrence Lessig calls this “a hybrid economy.” I think we’ll exist within such an economy for quite some time to come.

You’ll find hundreds of commentaries on this issue from such sources as Nick CernisMark EvansJemima KissDavid Crotty, and comics expert Scott McCloud (be sure to also see Part 2 of McCloud’s thought experiment). I take that dialogue seriously, and participate in it. On this subject, at least, Jeff Ward has nothing of value or substance to add.

Part 4 of 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

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