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My latest Guardian column is about positive externalities, the value that bystanders get from the stuff you’re already doing:

That’s the crux of this irrational fear of positive externalities: “If something I do has value, I deserve a cut.” It’s one thing to say that someone who hires you to do a job, or purchases your product, should pay you money. But positive externalities are the waste-product of something we were already going to do. They’re things that you have thrown away, that you have thrown off, that you have generated in the process of enjoying yourself and living your life.

The mania to internalise your positive externalities is the essence of cutting off your nose to spite your face. I walk down the street whistling a jaunty tune because I’m in a good mood — but stop as soon as I see someone smiling and enjoying the music. I keep my porchlight on to read by on a warm night, but if I catch you using the light to read your map, I switch it off, because those are my photons — I paid for ‘em!

Worse still: the infectious idea of internalising externalities turns its victims into grasping, would-be rentiers. You translate a document because you need it in two languages. I come along and use those translations to teach a computer something about context. You tell me I owe you a slice of all the revenue my software generates. That’s just crazy. It’s like saying that someone who figures out how to recycle the rubbish you set out at the kerb should give you a piece of their earnings. Harvesting positive externalities involves collecting billions of minute shreds of residual value – snippets of discarded string –and balling them up into something big and useful.

If every shred needs to be accounted for and paid for, then the harvest won’t happen. Paying for every link you make, or every link you count, or every document you analyse is a losing game. Forget payment: the process of figuring out who to pay and how much is owed would totally swamp the expected return from whatever it is you’re planning on making out of all those unloved scraps.

Why trying to charge for everything will kill online creativity

5 Responses to “Positive externalities thrive online”

  1. JP

    Love the thoughts and ideas. I think that payment itself takes different forms, particularly inside large organisations and clusters of organisations, public or private. That’s why people say “it’s amazing how much you get done when you don’t care who gets the credit”. Credit, in that sense, is a form of payment.

  2. D. G. Grace

    Everything you say on the subject makes perfect sense to me, and I love the fearlessness with which you’ve posted so many complete works online. I just wish someone would offer a rational business model for novel writing in this age of fluid copyrights. If I’d written a novel twenty years ago, I know the hoops I’d have to jump through. I’d have to submit to as many prospective publishers as possible–often one at a time since so few accept simultaneous submissions–and damn near every one would have slightly different requirements. One wants the first fifty pages and a synopsis. The next wants the driest, last, and one other representative chapter. The next wants the first three chapters with an outline and précis. Then, if you were lucky enough to get past the bored, exhausted, underpaid readers, and if the next rung of gatekeepers didn’t flag you for doing something they don’t like, you might make it to the level of the editor who can still reject you with no explanation, reject you with minimal explanation, offer ideas to make the work acceptable, or buy the damned book.

  3. D. G. Grace

    Now, I see people who can’t string together two rational sentences uploading their crap to Kindle alongside brilliant first novels, and I’m TERRIFIED. I have my own urban fantasy novel just about ready to upload (I’m working with a designer to get a decent cover to upload with it) and I don’t know how to get it read by the right people. I know it needs to develop buzz somehow, be picked up by folks like Kirkus, Locus, and the New York Review of Books, but how? Do I just send gratis copies to each of them? Is there any way to get someone like you or China Miéville or Neil Gaiman to read this work for me? I’ve passed it before as many critical friends and family as I can, but they’re not fiction pros.

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