Intellectual property in digital form is easy to copy, easy to transmit, making the enforcement of copyright law more difficult. As an increasing fraction of I.P. takes that form, we face the problem I like to describe as the death of copyright. If creators cannot control the use of what they create, how are they to get a sufficient reward to make it worth creating? It's an issue I have discussed here in the past, and also discuss at some length in the relevant chapter of Future Imperfect—available for purchase, but also webbed for free.
I recently came across one interesting example of a solution to that problem, hence this post. As I've mentioned, I spent last weekend at Westercon, a local sf convention. Like most cons, it had an art show. Being a relatively small con, most of the art was of a not very pretentious sort—I did not, for instance, notice the originals of the cover art for published books. The price range for most of it was between about $20, mostly prints and very small pieces, and $100.
The guests of honor at the con included the Foglios, the couple who produce Girl Genius, a very popular steampunk webcomic, and there was at least a moderate steampunk (alternate history, Victorian high tech) theme to the convention. The art show included the uncolored drawings for a number of frames of the webcomic, as well as at least one piece of unrelated art by Phil Foglio.
They were priced between a thousand and two thousand dollars each.
Phil Foglio is obviously a skilled artist, and one would expect his work to sell for substantially more than the work of the average sf semi-pro. But I suspect that the size of the gap reflects less that difference than the desire of the fans of the webcomic to possess a genuine piece of art associated with it. Which means that the creators of that particular piece of intellectual property can give away their digital creation online while making a significant amount of money selling associated non-digital creations in realspace. And they can do it at essentially no cost to themselves, since the drawing has already been created in the process of producing the webcomic. That is one example of what I think of as the tie-in approach to dealing with the death of copyright—the same principle that lets me put books up on the web for free and make a significant amount from being paid to give public talks, an opportunity in part created by people reading my books.
How much of an income can the Foglios expect from that particular source? My younger son, a fan of Girl Genius, tells me that it updates three times a week. Suppose the Foglios sell two-thirds of the uncolored drawings—why uncolored I don't know, perhaps because the coloring is done in a later digital step, and once the drawing is being printed from a computer it loses its rarity value. Further suppose that after paying a commission to the con or other intermediary, they end up with a thousand dollars per drawing. That's an income of a hundred thousand dollars a year—not enough to make them rich, but enough to pay for a fair fraction of groceries, rent, and the like. And they have a variety of other tie-ins, including physical books based on the comic, to supplement that.
It's an interesting world.