Piracy turned my genuine love for music into just another fidgety online addiction. It was an exercise in hyper-consumption: quantity over quality, breadth over depth, entitlement over ownership.
In Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Hunger for Free Content Starves Creativity, Chris Ruen — who previously offered a two part excerpt on this site — recounts his conversion experience from filesharing. While others writing on the subject have approached it from a legal or business perspective, Ruen takes a moral approach, critically examining the effects that everything for free without consequence has had on creativity and culture. But this should not be confused with moralizing, lest you think the book is 255 pages about how unauthorized downloading “is bad, mmkay.” Instead, Ruen explores the nuances of “freeloading” — his term for unauthorized downloading — in the broader context of an age where our real lives increasingly merge with our online selves in the same vein as media critics like Marshall McLuhan and Jaron Lanier.
In particular, Ruen turns to those most affected by the effects of the digital age — the musicians and those in the music industry themselves. The middle third of Freeloading is devoted to interviews with these individuals, and, in my opinion, is what should put the book on the must-read list of anyone in the copyright sphere. The interviews are presented in the subjects’ own words, unfiltered, unedited, and at length. Ruen presents an impressive lineup: Andy Falkous, frontman for Future of the Left. John Beeler, an employee at Asthmatic Kitty Records. James Bradley, owner of Brooklyn record store Sound Fix Records. Matt Wishnow, founder of indie distributor Insound. Ira Wolf Tuton, bassist for Yeasayer. Chris Swanson, co-founder and head of the Secretly Canadian record label. Joe Gaer, co-owner of the Social Registry record label. Todd Patrick, DIY concert promoter. Craig Finn, lead singer of the Hold Steady. Adam Farrell, VP of marketing at the Beggars Group. Kyp Malone, TV on the Radio.
The anarchic idea that, “Oh you take away the monetary system and everything will be, like, groovy”—it’s just not true! There’s always gonna be a hierarchy, no matter what. Okay, no money for music, no money to artists, painters, sculptors…. The idea that all of a sudden there’d be all this new art? No, there wouldn’t be! People are doing as much as they can already.
Ruen begins with a look back at the last ten or so years, dubbing it the “Decade of Dysfunction.” It begins with Metallica taking on Napster in 2000, where drummer Lars Ulrich, though correct, struck the wrong tone to many, resulting in a PR disaster that created the narrative that this was about cool, freedom loving digital natives versus out-of-touch, greedy dinosaurs. This narrative would be solidified a few years later when major record labels began to sue individual filesharers. As Ruen explains, academics like Lawrence Lessig were first to capitalize on this narrative. They were followed by “digital determinists” like Cory Doctorow, who argued, basically, that the internet made morality obsolete. Finally, the web hype-men like Chris Andersen and Mike Masnick came, building on the narrative and promising a new way forward for artists and creators. The “Decade of Dysfunction” culminates, for Ruen, at SOPA. He writes, “Years of haphazard debates, misunderstanding of the issues and demonization of rights holders had left a population of Internet users who were vulnerable to propaganda from a technology industry that was (in the form of search engines and social media) facilitating what felt like their lives.”
The wisdom of copyright is to focus the incentives, like a laser, upon the creative work itself. If our shared interest is the creation of more and better art, then why take away the fundamental legal right that incentivizes it, while setting artists off on a wild goose chase to find the best marketing scheme rather than to write the best song? The only true way of “adding value” to art is to make better art of higher quality.
The latter third of Freeloading is devoted to where we go from here. Unlike some, Ruen is optimistic that the ship can be righted and that it is both worthwhile and necessary to include the ethical and moral implications in any such discussion. And though Ruen argues for the continuing vitality of copyright law, he by no means believes “more copyright is better” (which, based on my experiences, seems more strawman than an actually held view). One of his recommendations toward the end is to limit the term of copyright to fifty years — an idea I personally disagree with on utilitarian and other grounds. But, as with any book like this, the idea is not to aim for one-hundred percent agreement but to provoke thought, and at this, Ruen succeeds.
As we approach the meat of this century—so exciting yet equally uncertain—the best chance we have for avoiding the declinist tendencies of Digital Determinism is to hold on, with passionate fury, to the principle that human creativity is valuable and sacred. When we devalue creativity, when we trample upon the rights of artists to distribute their work as they please, we devalue ourselves and trample upon our own right to a better future.