Kickstarter and Profit

Once upon a time, I wrote a short story. It was a lovely short story, one of the finest pieces I'd ever written, but alas, I couldn't find a market to sell it to. Then one day, a shiny new toy came out that I desired but could not afford. An idea sprang into my head: I will ransom the story to the public! If I could raise $250 to buy the shiny toy on Kickstarter, I would publish the story on my blog under Creative Commons as a gift to the world.

This Kickstarter was very successful; I got the object of my desire, and my husband got one too.

None of this should be news to you if you've been around here for a while. You lived through it with me! But I recently shared this experience on an online forum and was very taken aback when I was told that the project was unethical. Not what Kickstarter is for, probably a violation of their ban on "fund my life" projects, and in general a terrible thing to have done.

I disagree with this line of thinking, of course. Worse, I think there's a terrible, poisonous idea lurking in its heart: that artists don't deserve compensation, and that artistic work is without value.

The Debate

There are several more specific arguments regarding why the Shiva's Mother Kickstarter was unethical; the first is that the story was already written. Another seems to amount to an insufficient purity of heart; my motive in offering the Kickstarter was personal gain. One is: Kickstarter money should be spent solely on things that are required for the execution of the project, like editing or cover design for publishing, or music and graphics for a game. 

Let's focus on that last one first, because that's the key to this whole discussion. If I require outside services, like, say, an illustrator, it's OK to pay them with Kickstarter money, right? Absolutely. There's no argument there. And then that illustrator, having earned their wage, can spend it on anything they damn well please. I'm compensating that artist for time and craft, and their personal finances are their business. They're under no obligation to spend that money only on colored pencils and licenses for Adobe products, and if you suggested as much, they'd laugh in your face.

If I need several kinds of services -- even a whole team of game developers -- then it's fair to expect every single one of those people will be earning a wage in compensation for their time and skill. You might even say they're making... a personal profit.

Does that work suddenly lose its value if the person running the Kickstarter does it? If I have the skills and chops to design my own cover or run my own website, is it OK to pay myself for those services rendered? And indeed, is it not right to budget a wage for the time you spent in conceiving and excuting your own artistic project? According to the people calling me unethical and deceitful, the answer is no: that's not what Kickstarter is for.

So my question is... why would it be OK for everyone except the core artist driving the project to earn a wage? Must all artistic works rest on a core of volunteer labor out of love? I say absolutely not, no way, nohow, good lord no. 

It all comes back to that pernicious art vs. commerce tension that riddles our society, the idea that the work an artist does, all of the time and craft and passion they pour into it, is morally purer if there is no profit motive. That is isn't right for an artist to make or think about money. And yet you cannot eat art, you cannot live in it, it does not keep you warm in the winter nor does it put shoes on your feet. It is a hard fact that an artist must earn money to live. And if an artist does well enough to afford shiny toys on top of that: more power to you, comrade.

The time you spend in writing is still work that has value in the world. It is fair and just to at least try to earn something approaching a wage for it.

So was the story already written? Yes; call it owed wages for labor done before the Kickstarter ran. Was it a "fund my life" project? No; I executed and delivered an artistic work, just the way I said I would. Was my heart insufficiently pure because I went into it wanting an electronic device? No; how I spend my wages earned is my own business, not yours.

And should I have only spent the money on something necessary to the execution of the project?

...You know what? I did. Because without my own labor, there wouldn't have been any project at all.