Users’ Patronage: The Return Of The Gift In The ‘Crowd Society’

Giancarlo F. Frosio

Stanford Law School, CIS

September 10, 2015

Michigan State Law Review (April 2016, Forthcoming)

Abstract:

In this work, I discuss the tension between gift and market economy throughout the history of creativity. For millennia, the production of creative artifacts has lain at the intersection between gift and market economy. From the time of Pindar and Simonides – and until the Romanticism will commence a process leading to the complete commodification of creative artifacts – market exchange models run parallel to gift exchange. From Roman amicitia to the medieval and Renaissance belief that “scientia donum dei est, unde vendi non potest,” creativity has been repeatedly construed as a gift. Again, at the time of the British and French “battle of the booksellers,” the rhetoric of the gift still resounded powerfully from the nebula of the past to shape the constitutional moment of copyright law. The return of gift exchange models has a credible source in the history of creativity.

Today, after a long unchallenged dominance of the market, gift economy is re-gaining momentum in the digital society. The anthropological and sociological studies of gift exchange, such as Marcel Mauss’ The Gift, served to explain the phenomenon of open source software and hacker communities. Later, communities of social trust, such as Wikipedia, YouTube, and fan-fiction communities, spread virally online through gift exchange models. In peer and user-generated production, community recognition supersedes economic incentives. User-based creativity thrives on the idea of “playful enjoyment,” rather than economic incentives.

Anthropologists placed societies on an economic evolutionary scale from gift to commodity exchange, in a continuum from the clan system to the class system and the capitalist system of organization. I suggest that that continuum should now extend to the “crowd society,” which features new modes of social interaction in digital online communities. The networked, open and mass-collaborative character of the crowd society enhances the proliferativeness of the gift exchange model that lies in what anthropologists and social scientists described as a debt-economy.

The exploration of the creative mechanics of online communities put under scrutiny the validity of utilitarian theories of copyright and traditional market economy models. From Émile Durkheim and Mauss to Alain Caillé, anti-utilitarian thought designed a new political economy that defines humans as a “cooperative species,” rather than Homo economicus. In this context, I look into commons theory, through the lens of Elinor Ostrom’s work, and its application to modern commons-based peer production with special emphasis on Yochai Benkler and Jerome Reichman’s work. In conclusion, I evoke Jean Baudrillard’s essential question: “Will we return, one day, beyond the market economy, to prodigality?” I consider whether the digital revolution that promoted the emergence of the networked information economy is that “revolution of the social organization and of social relations” that might bring about, according to Baudrillard, “real affluence” through a return to “collective prodigality,” rather than our “productivistic societies, which [. . .] are dominated by scarcity, by the obsession with scarcity characteristic of the market economy.” I argue that a possibility for the reinstatement of Baudrillard’s “collective prodigality” might have materialized in the “crowd society” thanks to technological advancement and the emergence of a consumer gift system or “users’ patronage,” promoting an unrestrained, diffused and networked discourse between creators and the public, through digital crowd-funding.

Users’ Patronage: The Return Of The Gift In The ‘Crowd Society’ – Introduction

The production of creative artifacts has lain for millennia at the intersection between gift and market economy. According to the Latin brocard scientia donum dei est, unde vendi non potest, culture, knowledge and creativity are gifts that cannot be sold on the market. This idea has strong roots in ancient and medieval times. In earlier times, the idea intertwined with a culture of kinship and friendship. Later, community appurtenance and its religious underpinnings represented the stronghold of the construction of creativity as a gift. Although any categorization is problematic, standing the multiplicity of social and cultural settings, we can roughly identify three economic models in the production of creative artifacts: gift exchange, patronage or gift seeking immediate return,1 and market exchange. Throughout history, these models overlapped. Pure gift exchange models turned into more hierarchical forms of patronage, spanning from traditional decentralized aristocratic patronage to centralized forms of state and royal patronage to forms of participatory or planned economy. Eventually, the market took over almost entirely by the beginning of the nineteenth-century.

The tension between market and gift economy will hardly go away. Today, this tension is felt with increasing intensity due to recent trends of enclosure of knowledge in the digital environment. However, the resurgence of gift exchange models in the networked information economy also suggests that the notion of creativity as a gift may still play a determinant role. As Steven Hatcher noted, “[w]hat is earth shattering about UGC from this perspective is that because it is produced by literally millions of ordinary people, apparently without any expectation of economic gain, the very rationale for providing copyright protection to this growing body of creators and their works is called into question.”2 Again, Mark Lemley explained:

enforcement. That is a problem for IP theory, which may not be the main driver of creativity in a world where creation, reproduction, and distribution are cheap. That is increasingly the world in which we will live.

In peer and user-generated production, community recognition supersedes economic incentives. The exploration of the creative mechanics of online communities put under scrutiny the validity of utilitarian theories of copyright. In general, according to an emerging anti-utilitarian perspective, which build on Marcel Mauss gift’s studies, “Human beings’ first desire is to be recognized and valued as givers.”

In this article, I consider whether the digital revolution that promoted the emergence of the networked information economy is that “revolution of the social organization and of social relations” that might bring about, according to Jean Baudrillard, “real affluence” through a return to “collective ‘improvidence’ and ‘prodigality’,” rather than our “productivistic societies, which [. . .] are dominated by scarcity, by the obsession with scarcity characteristic of the market economy.”6 Therefore, taking Baudrillard to cyberspace, I evoke his essential question: “Will we return, one day, beyond the market
economy, to prodigality?”

In fact, the return of the gift has a credible source in the history of creativity. In the following pages, I will review the tension between gift economy and market economy in the history of creativity in order to make a prediction on Baudrillard’s question and the sustainability of modern creativity models based on collaboration, peer production and gift exchange.

Pindar and Simonides or Poetry between Market and Gift

For a very long time, models of gift exchange were commonplace in Greek protoeconomic relationship.7 Marcel Mauss argued that economic relationships evolved from gift to commodity exchange.8 Gift exchange dominated the so-called clan society, such as the Greek aristocratic society, while the modern class society made private property and commodity the norm.9 The social function and role of authors evolved with social changes together with new forms of economic support for creativity. The heroic age of the Achaeans of the twelfth century B.C. saw the emergence of artists and poets related to the entourage of kings and nobles.10 The production

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