The Value of Creative Works


I got into a discussion recently with somebody who argued that you shouldn’t have to pay for creative works, because anybody can create writing, music, or any other art as a hobby. If you only write for money, you shouldn’t be doing it. Besides, if you are really good, then you should be able  to make money in other ways, such as by touring. If not, well, you should get a regular job, not try to squeeze money out of people for having fun doing your hobby.

That really pissed me off. Since I like to rant about writing online, I thought I’d post here why.

Some thoughts on copyright

I’d like to get something out of the way first. I don’t agree with the way copyright works at this moment. I think it’s bad that copyright extends for years after an author’s death. I think it’s sick that individual people get sued for millions because they shared a few copyrighted works online, sometimes without meaning to. The DMCA is an abominable piece of legislation and the US trying to push it down the rest of the world’s throat using trade agreements is utterly destructive to the creative industry, as far as I’m concerned.

But I do believe that if I write a book and enough people enjoy reading it, that I should be able to make a living. If a band can fill up a large stadium for a concert, they should not be forced to work day-jobs to make ends meet.

These two statements are not contradictory. I don’t like the regulations as described above, but I do think creating creative works has value. I’m not going to argue about the copyright rules here, or the height of creative people’s incomes. I’ve already written a post about that last year. No, I take particular offense at the implication that creating creative works have no value at all except as a fun passtime for the creator.

Creating creative works

The creation of a creative work is what we usually think of as ‘creative’: the writer typing away in the wee hours, or the band practicing in a garage until they break through. Something like two-thirds of the population dream of doing this for a living.  The question is: what is the value of this work, then?

As I wrote above, I got pissed off because somebody basically said that this has no value. Writing, singing, performing, acting, and so on are hobbies. Things you do for fun.

The fact that people enjoy something means it has value, doesn’t it? The fact that it can be distributed freely by torrent or file-sharing doesn’t mean it has no value. It just means it’s not scarce. Scarcity is relevant for the distributing side of the equation. It doesn’t matter for the creation. Creating a novel is a lot of work, months or even more than a year’s worth of full-time work – not just by the writer – and includes writing, editing, type-setting, etc.  That time was spent, regardless of the actual number of novels that are sold and read. Fifty Shades of Grey was not many times harder to write than God’s War, but it probably sold over a thousand times as many copies, if not ten-thousand times as many.

Arguing that anybody could do it, is simply untrue. First, writing a good book takes dedication, fluke successes aside, and requires spending vast amount of practice time. Not just anybody can do it. At least not well. And even if that is the case, the fact that anybody can do it, doesn’t make it worthless. Anybody can come and pick up your garbage, or clean an office, but we don’t make those people work for free, do we? Why would that same rule not apply to people creating creative works?

Well, they are entrepreneurs of course. They are business men and business women, and if they want to earn a living they should sell more, or switch to a regular job. Again, this doesn’t really wash. If we collectively start hiring self-employed one-man (one-woman) businesses for cleaning, does cleaning suddenly become worthless as well? Actually, there is a race to the bottom in western society to do just that, but I think that’s a disturbing trend and there are economic arguments against doing this.

Does the fact that writing is a hobby make it less valuable? No, I wouldn’t think so. I enjoy writing, yes. Many people do. I also enjoy my work as a software developer. I even develop software as a hobby, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get paid for my day-job, does it? Should we stop paying professional athletes too? Or anybody who enjoys their jobs for that matter? No, your own enjoyment is irrelevant for the value. The value is in the fact that people enjoy the created work.

That leaves the ‘you should make money another way’ argument. Go touring, sell autographs, ask money for interviews, etc. If you think about it, this argument is a bit weird. You can make money that way, of course, but that also costs time. Why would spending time on writing that thousands enjoy be less valuable than spending time on doing autographs for a few hundred? Would people still want the autographs if the writing didn’t exist? No. Would people still want the writing if the autographs didn’t exist? Yes. So, the writing must be the valuable part.

In summary, if somebody spends time to do something other people want, be it cleaning, collecting garbage, or writing, then that has value. If nobody wants it, then it’s a different story. If nobody reads it, then you shouldn’t be paid. I wouldn’t pay a cleaner who leaves an office filthier than when they arrived either. But otherwise, yes, there is value.


I don’t think a lot of people actually think this way, but some do, and like I said, I like to rant.

There are a lot of arguments for not paying for creative works. You can be very poor, making creative works very expensive for you. That is valid. You can hate that artists make tons of money and should offer their wares for a fairer price. That is often not true, but could be valid.

However, saying that creative works are worthless by default, and you have a right to partake freely, that’s a low blow. Because to an artist, at least part of the value for them comes from the idea that what they create is valuable to others. With one fell swoop, you’re deriving pleasure for yourself but also taking it away from the creator. That’s just a dick move.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands