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Users' Patronage: The Return of the Gift in the "Crowd Society"

Publication Type: 
Academic Writing
Publication Date: 
September 10, 2015
In this work, I discuss the tension between gift and market economy throughout the history of creativity. For millennia, the production of creative artifacts has lain at the intersection between gift and market economy. From the time of Pindar and Simonides – and until the Romanticism will commence a process leading to the complete commodification of creative artifacts – market exchange models run parallel to gift exchange. From Roman amicitia to the medieval and Renaissance belief that “scientia donum dei est, unde vendi non potest,” creativity has been repeatedly construed as a gift. Again, at the time of the British and French “battle of the booksellers,” the rhetoric of the gift still resounded powerfully from the nebula of the past to shape the constitutional moment of copyright law. The return of gift exchange models has a credible source in the history of creativity.
Today, after a long unchallenged dominance of the market, gift economy is re-gaining momentum in the digital society. The anthropological and sociological studies of gift exchange, such as Marcel Mauss’ The Gift, served to explain the phenomenon of open source software and hacker communities. Later, communities of social trust, such as Wikipedia, YouTube, and fan-fiction communities, spread virally online through gift exchange models. In peer and user-generated production, community recognition supersedes economic incentives. User-based creativity thrives on the idea of “playful enjoyment,” rather than economic incentives. 
Anthropologists placed societies on an economic evolutionary scale from gift to commodity exchange, in a continuum from the clan system to the class system and the capitalist system of organization. I suggest that that continuum should now extend to the “crowd society,” which features new modes of social interaction in digital online communities. The networked, open and mass-collaborative character of the crowd society enhances the proliferativeness of the gift exchange model that lies in what anthropologists and social scientists described as a debt-economy. 
The exploration of the creative mechanics of online communities put under scrutiny the validity of utilitarian theories of copyright and traditional market economy models. From Émile Durkheim and Mauss to Alain Caillé, anti-utilitarian thought designed a new political economy that defines humans as a “cooperative species,” rather than Homo economicus. In this context, I look into commons theory, through the lens of Elinor Ostrom’s work, and its application to modern commons-based peer production with special emphasis on Yochai Benkler and Jerome Reichman’s work. In conclusion, I evoke Jean Baudrillard’s essential question: “Will we return, one day, beyond the market economy, to prodigality?” I consider whether the digital revolution that promoted the emergence of the networked information economy is that “revolution of the social organization and of social relations” that might bring about, according to Baudrillard, “real affluence” through a return to “collective prodigality,” rather than our “productivistic societies, which [. . .] are dominated by scarcity, by the obsession with scarcity characteristic of the market economy.” I argue that a possibility for the reinstatement of Baudrillard’s “collective prodigality” might have materialized in the “crowd society” thanks to technological advancement and the emergence of a consumer gift system or “users’ patronage,” promoting an unrestrained, diffused and networked discourse between creators and the public, through digital crowd-funding.
Forthcoming in MICHIGAN STATE LAW REVIEW (April 2016),  available at SSRN: