Jonathan Worth CC by-nc-sa-2.0-uk
Cory Doctorow by Jonathan Worth CC Some Rights Reserved

Photographer Jonathan Worth conducted a well-publicized experiment last fall and recently published the results on his blog.  (Also see here, here, here, and here.)  Worth was inspired by writer and activist Cory Doctorow (see here, here, and here) to release portraits that he made of Doctorow under a Creative Commons license that allows anyone to copy, distribute, share, and even adapt (“remix”) the images provided that they credit the author, use noncommercially, and place copies and derivative works under the same license.  This move was apparently at least to some extent a response to the copyright policies of the National Portrait Gallery, which collects Worth’s work.

Worth’s experiment was to see if he could make money by giving his pictures away, emulating Doctorow’s business model in which his CC licensed works circulating online publicize and drive the sales of his books.  While the images could be freely copied, etc., Worth offered 111  editioned prints together with 111 signed pages from a manuscript of Doctorow’s upcoming book “For the Win” on Etsy at sliding prices: 47 of the prints + pages went for £5, 26 for £10, 21 for £25, 11 for £50, 5 for £75, and 1 for £150 (with a special edition print).  The sale was open for about three weeks; the remaining prints and pages will go on sale for a month when the book is released in April 2010 at ten times the initial price after which any unsold prints will be destroyed.

Worth wanted to find out how much income he could make from the print sales and other revenue streams associated with the project while the images circulated freely.  (Worth is donating print sale proceeds to a primary school construction project.)  If you want a print of this picture you can download a hi-res file and print it yourself; the question was how many people would want one of Jonathan’s prints and the pages signed by Cory Doctorow?

More than a few; Worth reports £875 in print sales in the first round and another £550 related income.  Set against costs the project has come out ahead £760.  He also reported in an earlier post that he normally makes about £150 from archive print sales (compare to £875).

But the larger benefit has been what Worth calls his “perceivable nonmaterial benefits” which include prestige and publicity (Worth was made a fellow of the RSA and the project has been noted and praised in a number of different venues) as well as the education that the experience provided that Worth notes has encouraged him to reshape his business practices going forwards.
Cory Doctorow by Jonathan Worth CC Some Rights Reserved
Gambling is a way to invite income on the basis of an unguaranteed larger return, where any individual gambler might leave with more than they started with, but where the house always will make a profit.  In the 1990s businesses spent money in order to achieve what they hoped would be a sufficient scale to secure a large market share.

But CC licensing isn’t about investment and maximizing individual returns (success stories notwithstanding) which is why the question of whether photographers can make more money by “giving away” their work through CC licensing is not perhaps the right (or only) question.

The motivation behind licenses that allow the author to be inalienably associated with their work- even as that work circulates through paths beyond their control (and perhaps even changes into something else entirely)- has more in common with the impulses driving many of the practices associated with Free and Open Source software, in fact sharing much of their history and tradition, with ideals that congealed around the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s: free and open sharing of information, and tools for access.

This project is not simply about whether you can get something, material or not, by giving something away, but rather it describes the ongoing and increasing importance of individual nodes in the networks through which information circulates, through which this project was publicized.  Worth’s project has garnered attention because he has brought together a number of cultural formations that articulate with and resonate with one another: social media, creative commons, celebrity.

As such Worth’s project is suggestive of a lot more than asserting a possible business model for commercial photographers (the secondary sale of prints enabled by social media) and Worth is thoughtful about this in his recent posting.  What’s at stake here is the possibility of identifying practices that enable community-building and audience-building on the fly, around an idea, something we’re seeing more and more of.  These aren’t necessarily durable communities but as audiences for stories, whether visual or literary, they come together, often around a key figure (Doctorow) or event (the Haiti earthquake) to discuss, support, build consensus, mobilize, and/or affirm.  These flexible communities are not the same as networks; they may build on pre-existing networks, but they organize around people and events interpreted as memes at a particular moment.

These kinds of practices live comfortably in many tech contexts as well as in science and education but whether they can be adopted in industries such as the circulation of commercial photography and photojournalism depends on the development of interventions like Worth’s.  As Worth himself noted, this project owed a lot to Cory Doctorow’s celebrity.  It’s a recursive project: a portrait and artifact of an respected übergeek offered to a self-selected audience that we assume share some of Doctorow’s principles, a freely circulating work depicting a person who is associated with the free circulation of works.  (Chris Kelty has written persuasively about the recursive character of Open Source software communities where a shared ethos of openness drives both the discussion around and creation of products that are materially and legally characterized by openness.)

Looking at the writeups of Worth’s project, it’s also evident that Worth struck a nerve with ongoing anxieties about changes in the media landscape.   Everybody knows that social media has changed/ will change the rules for journalism, for commercial photography and photographer representation.  The routes are not yet clear; they will be built on the shoulders of small experiments like this.  But there will need to be many more before patterns start to appear. Perhaps the process will echo the open source ethos as a transformation (and reformation?) of the existing industry (see Kelty).

At the end of the day this isn’t an experiment in itself.  With its recursive character and built in audience, it’s a control for the experiments to come, where there isn’t as close a connection to the audience isn’t quite so well built in.  It’s a necessary early step.  And while Worth is a commercial editorial photographer, I’m curious about the implications for photojournalism broadly.  What we need to see next is whether journalists’ principles of openness and sharing of information can motivate similar practices that can work with these licenses to the best effect.  It’s not even really about the licenses, but about the flows that those licenses encourage.

Worth’s project isn’t necessarily going to help all the other photographers out there pay their bills today but perhaps sooner rather than later we’ll see some sustainable models emerge.  (In the meantime, thanks, Jonathan Worth and Cory Doctorow for putting this on the table.  You’ve earned your perceiveable benefits, material and nonmaterial alike.)