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