The Blur Banff proposal

Notes on the Blur Banff proposal*
KEI Research Note 2013:1
February 1, 2013

This is a brief note on the Blur/Banff proposal for a system of decentralized decision making and competitive intermediaries to provide money to support recorded music that is freely available. Also discussed are extensions of the competitive intermediary approach to other areas where information goods can be supplied as public goods.

Formally, the origins of the Blur Banff proposal were two 2002 workshops. The first was a workshop at the New School, “Blur 02 | Power at Play in Digital Art and Culture,” which took place April 11-13, 2002. The second was a July 2-9, 2002 workshop at the Banff New Media Institute.

Since the New School link is now broken, here is a copy of the often cited and first text version of the Blur Banff proposal: /wp-content/uploads/02-04_Love_blur-banff.pdf. But probably as or more useful would be the slides used in the original 2002 presentation of the proposal at Banff, available here).

At the New School workshop, a breakout group choose to work on the statement, “Artists want to be paid.” This group included Jamie Love, Ted Byfield, Jamie J. King, Richie Hawtin and Alan Toner. Based upon the enthusiasm at Blur, Sarah Diamond then invited Love, Byfield, King and Toner to work further on the ideas at the Banff New Media Institute, during the Interactive Screen 0.2 workshop, from July 2 to July 8, 2002.

During the Banff meeting, Toner and King disagreed with Love on some of the ideas, and two somewhat different proposals were presented, one by Love, and the other by Toner and King. Love later wrote his proposal as a user experience for the 2002 Blur 02 workshop, and as part of a chapter titled “Paying for Public Goods,” co-authored with Tim Hubbard, in the book Code.

This proposal was the subject of a critique by Terry Fisher in Chapter 6 of his book, Promises to Keep, and later Alan Toner would write up his own version of the proposal.

The Blur Banff proposal was notable for the view that while the overall level of support for creative communities might be determined by a mandate, such as compulsory contribution or a opt-in level of funding associated with a statutory license to use works, the actual distribution of the rewards should be shaped by the preferences of consumers/listners/users, and not mechanically linked to statistics on the use of works. The Blur Banff proposal also focused on the role of “competitive intermediaries” to distribute the money to artists and producers.

The development of the Blur Banff proposal in 2002 came at the same time that Love was developing a proposal for the collective management of patent rights via a Patent Pool for HIV/AIDS, something now in operation as the Medicines Patent Pool. Love and Tim Hubbard also participated in a 2002 scenario planning workshop with Aventis where IPR free drug development scenarios were explored. The Aventis workshop produced “Radical IP scenarios” which were the basis for proposals for a bio medical R&D treaty, and the de-linkage of R&D costs from drug prices through a combination innovation inducement prizes and open source funding. The Aventis scenarios looked at the role of competitive intermediaries to fund open source medical research in areas where valuations were more controversial, and decentralized decision making was preferred. The new approaches to funding medical R&D have been explored in a variety of fora, including at the W.H.O. and the U.S. Congress.

One of the important ideas within the Blur Banff proposal is that it is both feasible in some case important to permit competition not only in the supply of information goods, but also for the demand, including the methods and approaches to valuing such goods.

The role of competitive valuation approaches has special relevance for cultural goods, where values are subjective and often controversial, state control is highly problematic, and the distribution of market rewards is unsatisfying to many. The Blur Banff proposal acknowledges that there is no agreement on how to fund authors, performers and producers of musical works, and provides a system where consumers/fans/listeners/users exercise choice as regards the intermediaries who will make those judgments on their behalf. Competitive intermediaries are legitimized not through the specific methodology they employ, but rather by the fact that they were selected, in competition, by the people who are ultimately paying. To fully appreciate the change in the model, think of each consumer acting as a patron of the arts, selecting the competitive intermediary which does the best job of executing their vision as to how to support the arts.

The specific context for the Blur Banff proposal was the declaration that “Artists want to be paid” for recorded music. Recorded music was being widely copied and shared outside of the copyright licensing system, and, often in ways that were distinctly more appealing to listeners than the existing systems that operated inside of copyright law. The copyright system was seen not only a barrier to innovation in the way that music was distributed, but also as a system that had a corrupting influence on art itself, and a system that skewed economic rewards toward a handful of famous artistic and to corporate owners of the property rights.

If the financing is from the perspective of the consumer/fan/listener/user, a wide range of distributions of money are possible, having in some cases little or nothing to do with the outcomes observed in traditional market outcomes. The starting point is not one of an intellectual property right in a work, and indeed, intellectual property rights could be deemed irrelevant. Instead, the consumers would be free to choose innovative remuneration systems that are perceived, by them, to be fair and effective in inducing the production of creative works, and rewarding and sustaining creative communities. This freedom extends to such possibilities as listening to one type of music, but funding another, or changing the distribution of incomes between best known and lesser known artists, or recognizing the contributions of back up musicians and singers, artists who influence other artists, or creating pension funds for performers.

It is the change in control and perspective that made the Blur Banff proposal particularly controversial. Proposed as an alternative to various compulsory licensing schemes that sought to mimic market outcomes, and “compensate” artists for infringements of property rights, the Blur Banff proposal rejected the idea that market outcomes or property rights were either legitimate or effective in sustaining creative communities. But critical to the Blur Banff model was the notion that mandates to fund creative works were necessary, and that debates over the overall funding levels would be important.

From 2002 to 2005, the idea of competitive intermediaries was extended to a wide range of other areas where valuation is controversial, and market prices for information goods are problematic, including cases where zero marginal prices are important, such as new the R&D for new medicines, free software, or open access academic journals or books.

When is the Blur Banff approach relevant?

1. Are market outcomes are sub optimal, unfair or even morally offensive?

2. Is there is a willingness to agree on some overall level of support for a general activity, such as the production of open source software, freely available recorded music, open access publishing of scholarly, scientific and policy research, open sourced upstream medical research, and downstream de-monopolized new drugs?

3. Are decisions about how to spend/allocate the money controversial?

4. Is state or other centralized bureaucratic control problematic?

5. Would society be comfortable with a system that mandated payments for the general category of goods by individuals, or in some cases by other de-centralized decision makers like libraries, schools, employers or insurance companies, but those making the payments were free to choose the entity that spent/received the money?

In 2012, the US Senate voted in favor of S.3187, and a provision in the bill called upon “the National Academies to provide expert consultation and conduct a study that evaluates the feasibility and possible consequences of the use of innovation inducement prizes to reward successful medical innovations.” As part of that study, the National Academies were asked to consider:

(8) Whether a system of competitive intermediaries for interim research prizes would provide an acceptable solution to the valuation challenges for interim prizes.

This National Academies study was eventually was eliminated in the Conference between the House and the Senate, and was not included in the final law.

Other discussions of the Blur/Banff and competitive intermediaries proposals.

Volker Grassmuck and Felix Stalder expressed opposition to the Blur Banff approach in a 2003 paper: Models for Alternative Compensation for Entertainment: A Critical Review, written for the workshop on Alternative Compensation Schemes, Berkman Center for Internet & Society, 5.12.2003.

Philippe Aigrain has endorsed, explored and extended the competitive intermediary approach in his thoughtful 2012 book, Culture and the Economy in the Internet Age. (from Amazon, Philippe’s web page for the book).

The Chaos Computer club promotes a similar concept which they call Kulturwertmark

Dean Baker proposed a user directed tax credit funding system in 2003 which included the possibility of competitive intermediaries. The Artistic Freedom Voucher: An Internet Age Alternative to Copyrights, November 5, 2003. (Copy here).

Current projects

KEI has proposed and is working further on the elaboration of the proposal to require libraries or educational establishments to spend a fraction of their budgets to acquire public licenses to ebooks, or to support open access journals.

* The motivation for this note was an invitation to make a presentation at the February 1, 2013 book launch for Euphoria & Dystopia: The Banff New Media Institute Dialogues, at the Ontario College of Arts and Design in Toronto.