Going after copyright reformers is risky business. To digital zealots, defending copyright is like advocating the return to the typewriter. (I personally like typewriters; I own several and I recommend a wonderful 1997 Atlantic piece on them at Longform.org). Going after sworn copyright opponents is what Robert Levine does in his just-published book Free Ride — How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business can Fight Back.
The pitch: Digital corporations are conspiring to promote the free ideology that has been plaguing the internet over the last decade. With their immense financial firepower, the Googles and the Apples and the Silicon Valley venture capital firms that funded Napster did whatever it took to undermine the concept of copyright. From lobbying the United States Congress to funding free-culture advocates, they created a groundswell for rip-and-burn products that would sell their MP3 devices. They got lawmakers and pundits to pave the way for a general ransacking of intellectual property — from music to journalistic content. Once Levine makes his point, he explores possible solutions to restore value to creativity (We’ll address these in a future column).
Needless to say, Robert Levine has produced a non-politically correct opus. And that’s what makes his book fascinating.
To start, the author reframes the famous quote, “Information wants to be free.” Free Ride recalls the complete sentence as far more nuanced. This is actually what tech writer Stewart Brand said at an 1984 a hacker conference:
“One one hand information wants to be expensive because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”
Few quotes in recent history have been more twisted and misinterpreted than this one. Everyone jumped on Stewart Brand’s distinction between collecting information and making it available to the audience. While the cost of the former remains high — at least for those producing original information, or content — the marginal cost of broadcasting it fell dramatically, and that is what sparked the idea of a zero-cost culture. Yet, “media products have never been priced according to their marginal cost,” Levine says, and therefore, free is an idea that’s hard to defend.
As described in Free Ride, US lawmakers played a critical role in opening the floodgates of piracy and copyright violation on the internet. On October 28, 1998, Bill Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. That law, says Levine, gave a “safe harbor” to internet service providers and some online companies. No longer liable for copyright infringement based on the actions of users, Levine writes that the “safe harbor made it easier for sites like YouTube to become valuable forums for amateur creativity. But it also let them build big businesses out of professional content they didn’t pay for.” That, he says, is how Congress created YouTube. (Google purchased it in 2006 for $1.65 billon).
The book’s most spectacular deconstruction involves Lawrence Lessig. The Harvard law professor is one of the most outspoken opponents of tough copyright. For years, he’s been criss-crossing the world delivering well-crafted, compelling presentations about the need to overhaul copyright. When, in 2007, Viacom sued YouTube for copyright infringement, seeking more than a billion dollars in damages, Lessig accused Viacom of trying to overturn the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It was a de facto defense of Google by Lessig who at the time was head of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University. What Lessig failed to disclose is that two weeks after closing the deal to acquire YouTube, Google made a $2-million donation to the Stanford Center, and a year later gave another $1.5 million to Creative Commons, Lessig’s most famous intellectual baby. To be fair, Levine told me he didn’t believe Lessig’s positions on copyright were influenced by the grants from Google. Moreover, Google set aside $100 million to fight the Viacom lawsuit. Numerous examples throughout Free Ride show how technology companies are committed to influence public policy. Ironically, Lawrence Lessig’s newest crusade at Harvard is about corruption in Washington.
Robert Levine’s book could be disputed on a few items.
- One, he’s too kind to the music industry. (His view may have been influenced by his tenure as executive editor of Billboard magazine where he witnessed first-hand the self-inflicted deterioration of the music industry.) The music business missed all the trains: (a) it defended the physical model up to the last minute even as its annihilation seemed unavoidable; (b) it extended as long as it could the double screwing of consumers and artists alike (sadly, poor analog artists have been replaced by poor digital ones).
- Two, he tends to forget the general complacency of content creators toward all forms of digital looting. I’ve often described in the Monday Note how publishers – blinded by the short-term appeal of the eyeball count – became consenting victims of all sorts of aggregators (see my Lenin’s Rope series).
- Three, the advent of free content has in fact unleashed talent. Unknown authors have been able to rise from obscurity thanks to direct access to the audience. And some have found alternative ways to make money (more on this in another future column).
Lastly, the unfolding of technology made the relaxing of copyright unavoidable. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act may have accelerated the transition but it didn’t cause the upheaval. Today, BitTorrent file transfer for music and movies accounts for about 10-12% of the internet bandwidth consumption, and YouTube accounts for 11%. Pirated content represents almost 100% of the former and about a third of the latter. Huge numbers, indeed, and huge losses for the music and movie industries. But Netflix with its legitimate content now accounts for 30% of the entire internet traffic (Hulu has less than 2%) and iTunes is growing faster than ever. And some economists do consider that giving up a large quantity of content for free is the price that must be paid to preserve a marketable share.
The music industry paid a terrible price during the digital transition, with a drop of 50% of its sales in one decade. But it would be unfair to make lenient lawmakers and internet pirates the main culprits. Unbundling played a critical role as well, just as in the newspaper industry. Being able to buy a single song on iTunes (instead of an album), or hoping that a single article on a web page will generate enough viewers to pay for itself (instead or purchasing an entire bundled newspaper) caused a great deal of damage.
As plagued as it is by piracy, the movie industry is immune to the notion of unbundling, which partly explains why box office revenue between 2006 and 2010 rose by 30% outside the United States and by 15% in the US/Canada market. Although the number of moviegoers is slipping, the industry has been able to find its way into the digital world.
Robert Levine’s book is a must-read that reframes the debate on the evolution of copyright. In an unusual way, it encompasses a European view on the issue (Levine lives part-time in Berlin). That makes the book even more interesting as countries explore ways for content creators to finance their work while not killing the formidable creative freedom unleashed by the digital world.