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Discussion: The Wu-Tang Clan Album Auction and Open Media

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Just before Thanksgiving, The Verge and other news sites reported on the now-public results of an auction for the single physical copy of the Wu-Tang Clan album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin that occurred in May 2015. We now know that the album, unsurprisingly, sold for millions of dollars, making it by far the single most expensive album in history. What is surprising is that the buyer had to for months negotiate the terms of sale with Wu-Tang Clan's lawyers. Among other things, Wu-Tang Clan promised to destroy all remaining physical copies from the manufacturing process (so that the buyer's copy is the only physical one in existence), and that neither party will not release any of the material (digital or otherwise) for the next 88 years.

bq. Wu-Tang Clan co-founder RZA stated that "The Wu-Tang Clan has always been driven by innovation, and this marks another moment in musical history...We hoped that this concept would inspire debate and new ways of seeing creativity...We pioneered a new type of intellectual property regarding the sale of a work that is simultaneously physical and digital, creating previously unexplored legal protections for a unique work that cannot be reproduced.

In the months leading up to the auction, a Kickstarter campaign attempted to raise sufficient funds to win the auction and place the album in the public domain. Put another way by the originator of the Kickstarter:

bq. The risk is some billionaire's kid spending his dad's money to collect a trophy and then he'll keep the album to himself and fans the world over will suffer...Wu members can still get their CREAM and the rest of us get to enjoy an epic album instead of some über-rich bastard keeping it to himself like a collector's item.

However, that Kickstarter only raised $15,406 from 688 people. Wu-Tang Clan made

So here's where the conversation begins. Wu-Tang Clan made a ridiculous amount of money off this single project, but they still negotiated for the album to remain utterly private for longer than even American copyright law allows. I can certainly understand artists placing value on their art, but it feels like this endeavor embodies the very antithesis of free (i.e. open) expression. Furthermore, how can fans of an artist not view this action as an affront to the very notion of fandom? After all, why enjoy an artist's work that inspires millions when you can commission art that inspires you alone? The concern was that the people who bought all of their music, the fans, the collectors, would be the ones unable to partake because they would be simply outclassed. While the fact that only 688 people even bothered to contribute is itself telling, the result of both the auction and the Kickstarter set a poor example for artists in the music industry. Not only can they get away with brazenly alienating their fan base, but most fans are largely unwilling to tolerate such notions, even if for the greater good (remember, if the Kickstarter won, then everyone could own a legal copy).

So the question is this: is media really just worth less to us now, and if not, does media not lose its value to society if it is sealed away?