Cultural Speculation


Boingboing's current guestblogger Paul Spinrad is Projects Editor for MAKE magazine and the author of The VJ Book and The Re/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Wendy, their two young children Clara and Simon, and their cats Ron and Nancy. 

People are always looking do diversify their investments, and I'd like to see a mechanism for directly investing in culture rights. For cultural products that exist already and are protected by copyright, you need to get a specialist lawyer to negotiate with the various offices that handle rights, and it's all opaque. Maybe rightsholders could make more money off of their properties by opening the process up and forming a public exchange.

Not only would a rights exchange make it easier to buy rights for actual use, like for the songs and recordings in Sita Sings The Blues, it would also support speculation. If you know about some other forgotten but amazing recording or movie that you're sure people will want to re-issue, sample from, derive from, or whatever, then great– buy away, or pool with others who want a piece. Even if you think something is lame but feel many others would go for it, speculate!

A market like this is an obvious idea, and I'm guessing it's been discussed many times, so I wonder what the barriers have been. Some professional rights handlers would lose their jobs– are they a powerful lobby? Did anyone ever consider using Max Keiser's Hollywood Stock Exchange as a funding vehicle? Rights are more complicated than stocks, but online stock trading sites have figured out easy interfaces for buying, selling, puts, calls, selling short, and other flavors of transaction. Boilerplate is boilerplate.

A culture market would also be a boon to hipsters whose cultural intelligence and breadth of knowledge would suddenly become a marketable talent. Look for the most successful investment funds to be run by comic book / record / video / book store staff.

The exchange could help fund culture that doesn't exist yet or speed its adaptation to more expensive media. Read a self-published graphic novel lately that you think has great potential, but is not well-known? Invest in its movie rights– you'll be supporting its original creator, and your investment might pay off. We've been seeing lately that Hollywood producers would rather hear "thousands of people already love this story in comic-book form" than "here's a screenplay– Gail and Tony liked it, so then I gave it to Marty, and he thought it would do well, especially internationally, so then Louise gave it a read and she said it would work with her ending, so then I gave it to…"

I also think the rights market would be a big win for the U.S. No one has or does culture and information like we do: movies, TV, software, games, etc. Whatever the reasons– I proudly attribute it to our unique mix of diversity, frontier history, freedom, prosperity, first-mover advantage, and infrastructure– I think our strength in this will endure.

If you own some rights and do a bad job of exercising them, make a lame product, then you lose your investment, fair and square. If a lot of people own a right collectively, then they can hold shareholders meetings to decide things like who should be offered the female lead role and for how much. Unauthorized use or duplication problems might take care of themselves naturally, through crowd enforcement. The all-seeing eyes 10,000 investors who want to protect their property would sniff out and deal with infringers better than some studio legal department, no matter how hyperactive and well-compensated.

Photo: Yale Joel – LIFE © Time Inc.