A conventional narrative has emerged of  the media and creative industries’ response to the internet and digital technology. Beginning around the mid-1990s, this story has been one of old against new: stodgy, corporate executives holding on to the past versus hip digital natives embracing the future. These technologies have rendered copyright law broken according to this story; existing media industries have failed to take advantage of these innovations, relying instead on using the law to prop up their dying business models. They have failed to adapt and sued those who have.

Casting a journalist’s eye on the past decade and a half, Robert Levine debunks this narrative in his new book Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back.

For example, in his chapter on the music industry, he notes that contrary to the party line, record labels had privately been in negotiations with Napster prior to their lawsuit against it. Even if the two sides had reached an agreement, it’s unlikely the industry’s fortunes would have changed much: piracy would move to second-generation file-sharing services like Limewire and Kazaa and any revenues generated from a subscription Napster would have been a fraction of what labels were getting from traditional retail channels. As Levine points out, “The labels wasted time they should have spent setting up legal online services, and they made plenty of other mistakes. But why would any company rush to turn $15 transactions into 99-cent sales, let alone ones worth nothing at all?”

The reframing of the narrative goes deeper. In his book Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, William Patry notes that the history of copyright law has been punctuated by “copyright wars”, one of which we are in the midst of today. Patry implies that the current “copyright war” is different — previous ones had been inter-industry struggles, this one pits the interests of traditional copyright holders with the public at large.1

Levine shows, however, that this is incorrect. The ideology of copyright critics masks nothing more than a simple economic struggle between existing content producers and emerging content distributors. As Levine points out in an interview at last June’s World Copyright Summit, despite all the high-minded academic arguments of the copyleft, no one has so far acted contrary to their economic self-interest. To be fair, even those who have argued against copyright have admitted as much. At this past April’s Rethink Music conference, Lawrence Lessig said, “Ideas have nothing to do with this fight. This is a fight between the people who make money under the old system and the people who might make money in the new system.”

Free Ride is currently available in the UK and hits the shelves in the US October 25th — the companion blog is found at freeridethebook.wordpress.com. The book is a must read for creators, copyright enthusiasts, and anyone else interested in these issues. Levine is a former executive editor for Billboard, former features editor for Wired, has written for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, and is an all around good guy. Disclaimer: I assisted Rob with some legal research for the book.

Along with the music industry, Levine devotes chapters to newspapers, books, television, and film. Although each of these industries rely on copyright and each have faced challenges in the digital age, the similarities end there. The business models of each sector have substantial differences, and the reasons for their struggles vary — newspapers, for example, lost significant ad revenues to web sites like Craigslist. The stories of these industries are breezily told but thoroughly researched, peppered with quotes from the many people who played a role in them that Levine interviewed for this book.

But it’s those parts of Free Ride that take a critical look at the role of tech companies in pushing the previously-mentioned narrative — shaping the law, policy, and public discourse at the same time — which seem to be getting the most attention. Google’s role in particular is scrutinized — Levine details the money and people that flows from the search giant to various academic think tanks and public interest groups which push for a version of copyright law more favorable to the googles of the world. As the book points out, there’s nothing wrong with this — every business looks out for its own interests. But this side of the debate often escapes attention.

Free Ride ends with some recommendations for how the culture business can address the challenges of commerce in the face of ubiquitous copying. Levine’s greatest contribution to these challenges, however, is the book itself. By bringing together all the pieces of the post-DMCA story of copyright and reframing the conventional narrative to one closer to reality, Free Ride lends an air of hope to the idea that creative industries can thrive online.

Footnotes

  1. Pp. xix, 1 (Oxford Univ. Press 2009). []

12 Comments

  1. This is a fine review of a book which I will certainly be buying.

    However, it is of concern that alongside a book review in favour of copyright is an advert promoting over 15,000,000 free music downloads. Assuming your position is that you are in favour of copyright, and the moral arguments in support of copyright, such adverts undermine your message.

    I missed the advert but one of my colleagues spotted it. I felt you should be aware of this issue and hopefully find a way of filtering out adverts that are ‘off-message’. Out of interest I’m curious to know the source of these adverts, is it Google?

    • Thanks for the heads-up. I use Google for ads, have made some changes to the settings to make sure those type of ads don’t show up.

      • Er, Terry, have a look at your sidebar now! I think quite possibly you have been hacked.

        • Oh, it just changed again. When I made my last comment it had a giant arrow saying ‘Download Free Music Now’.

          • Now there’s another free music ad. I think you have definitely been hacked.

          • I assume the changes may take a while to go into effect, I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

            I believe the ads are for iMesh, which the RIAA lists as a legal music site — though obviously that’s only the opinion of one association.

  2. It gets weirder. When I just checked back on the home page, there were some innocuous ads. But when I clicked to view Comments, there is the ‘download free music’ sign again. I think someone is using the Comments facility to deface the page.

  3. Pingback: Business Matters: Rhapsody, MetroPCS Partnership Excludes Warner Music Group | FT Digital

  4. I own up to using ad-block so I haven’t spotted the ads issue, but having disabled it just now I see the ad clear as day.

    Rolling over to see the link, it a DoubleClick ad (I did a quick scan of the Net to see whether it might be a masquerader, but the doubleclick.net domain resolves to google.com/doubleclick – so I guess it’s legit) for a site called BearShare – which bills itself as: “the best free music downloading and sharing software. Full iPod or other MP3 players support. The best Limewire Alternative!” Not exactly the kind of company I’d feel good about, were they to advertise on my site (but then, I don’t run ads).

    Strangely enough, however, this site is on the RIAA list of legal music distributors. I can’t say I like the way they advertise their services, but apparently they too are legit.

    • I also saw the ‘Bear Share’ ad. If that isn’t a pirate site I’ll eat my own elbow. I still suspect that this site was hacked in some way. Wasn’t it DDoS’d a few months ago by Anonymous or similar? In the infantile minds of the freetards, defacing it with an ad for pirates would be just ‘Lulz’.

      • I’ve done a bit more research and it seems that BearShare was a pirate site in the beginning. The site’s operators transferred all BearShare-related assets to an iMesh subsidiary, as part of a settlement with the RIAA in 2006. It now operates on the iMesh network – which is a “bad file-barter network gone good”.

        So yeah, they’re a licensed operator – strange as it may seem.

  5. Great stuff, Terry. You’re on a roll this week with a new post everyday. I love it! I just pre-ordered this book on Amazon. Thanks for the heads up.

    The Register today has an interview with Levine: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/08/18/robert_levine_freeride_interview/

  6. Pingback: Free Ride – How Technology Companies Are Killing The Culture Business

  7. http://www.aphotoeditor.com/2011/08/26/free-ride-how-technology-companies-are-killing-the-culture-business/#comments

    “to sum up today’s lesson, “photography is a dying industry because photographers have been trained to detest and rage against DRM and property rights.” lol! and guess what! The photographers are WINNING in destroying their own and your livelihood while enriching the multi-BILLIONAIRE owners of the CLOUD!”

  8. Pingback: Free Ride – How Technology Companies Are Killing The Culture Business | Bobby Walcott

  9. Pingback: Free Ride by Robert Levine Available Today | Copyhype