There’s a new artist manifesto on the horizon.
Robert Levine’s Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business can Fight Back is one of the most important books to be written on the relationship between the web’s biggest businesses and those who create content.
To give you some idea of how Levine defines this relationship, when the book is published in the US this October, the title will change from “How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business” to “How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business.” Got the picture?
Levine is a former executive Editor of Billboard and former features writer at Wired. His new book provides a guide to the different political, legal, and lobbying approaches internet businesses have taken to change copyright law: “The real story is that for-profit technology companies deliberately set out to make money from piracy and never came up with a workable plan to pay artists.”
Surprised? Welcome to the internet world of video, music, content aggregators, newspapers, television, books, movies, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
How about Stewart Brand’s memorable 1984 quote, “information wants to be free”? It has inspired a whole movement and is still used as an anchor to many a business plan. Good to know though that only a year before Brand had this epiphany he received a $1.3 million advance for his Whole Earth Catalogue.
As Levine writes, “Google has as much interest in free online media as General Motors does in cheap gasoline. That’s why the company spends millions of dollars lobbying to weaken copyright.” Think about it: YouTube built a huge business out of content it didn’t pay for.
Using content created by others is a free speech issue, right? The young and hip are for using whatever source material they can with no responsibility to the original creator. Only the old and misguided want to cling to copyright protections and squash freedom of speech. For Levine, that’s dead wrong. Copyright is meant to encourage expression. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the 1985 majority opinion in Harper & Row Publishers v. Nation Enterprises, “The Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression….By establishing a marketable right to the use of one’s expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate.” Moreover, Levine notes, “the world’s healthiest democracies also have the strongest copyright systems.”
Levine cites the favorite economists of free-the-content, Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf, who once memorably wrote: “Artists often enjoy what they do, suggesting they might continue being creative even when the monetary incentives to do so become weaker…In addition, artists receive a significant portion of their renumeration not in monetary form — many of them enjoy fame, admiration, social status, and free beer in bars.” Oh, wow.
Levine’s reporting also connects the dots between the flow of dollars from Google and other companies with an interest in making money from free content to the academics, think tanks, and organizations that fight copyright protection. One of his targets is Lawrence Lessig, for whom “free culture is a free speech issue.” After delineating some of the pesky facts that undercut the professor’s arguments, Levine writes, “The dangerous leap in Lessig’s logic is that respecting remix culture means tolerating mass piracy.”
Leave aside for a moment the question of why the academics who promote free content sell their books and accept significant fees for their speeches. If artists are asked to give away their work for free and find something else to sell (say, live performances, T-shirts or posters), why don’t these academics who make money from their books give away their teaching for free? Maybe instead of tenured salaries, universities should not have to pay teachers who, after all, use the university’s platform, resources, and position to be able to produce, market and sell their books? Just asking.
For Levine, copyright is about enabling art to flourish, not merely about encouraging participation. He concludes with solutions geared toward giving artists the option of working with large companies to help produce and promote their work or making their own way in an online economy. With different approaches to content use and licensing that shares the risks, online business would get better, not just cheaper.
Levine’s guiding principle is Article 27 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948): “Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.”
That’s a pretty good starting point, don’t you think?
- Bill Reichblum