The Sunday Conversation: Robert Levine

Robert Levine, 41, a former executive editor of Billboard, sounds the alarm on Internet piracy and technology companies’ economic war on the music, movies, television, book publishing and newspaper industries in “Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back” (Doubleday).

What made you decide this book needed to be written?

The decision was gradual. When Napster came out I thought it was the greatest thing ever, like a lot of people did. I thought the Internet would give artists a way to reach fans directly and do business with them, and labels would have to compete and offer better deals. You’d have an even playing field for big companies and artists alike. Over the years, I realized that wasn’t happening, and it wasn’t going to happen as long as there was so much piracy. For a while, I said, someone really has to write this book. And when no one else did, I said, well, that’s it. I’m going to do it myself.

Most of the books written about the subject are either written from the perspective of the technology business by business pundits who are really marketing their services as consultants. Or they’re written in a schoolmarm-ish tone, like, newspapers are essential for our democracy. To me what’s interesting here is not who’s doing well and who’s doing badly — it’s how the value that one business creates is being transferred to all these other businesses. If you want news to be reported or music to be recorded or movies to be made, there has to be some money in it. There has to be an advantage to the one who makes it, as opposed to subsequent distributors of it.

You write about what you call “the devaluation of creativity” over the past decade. What do you mean?


The thing about the media business is you’re always selling a piece of culture, not a piece of stuff, by which I mean that the physical value of the book is the paper and the binding or the physical value of a CD or newspaper was never very important. So the Internet comes and takes away distribution costs and everyone is rapturous — the Internet takes away distribution costs, now everything can be free. But those distribution costs were never really that high in the first place. The expense of printing and distributing a hardcover book is about $3.50. What costs money is making it, reporting those articles in the L.A. Times or doing the research in a book. My friend tells a great story about being at a tech conference and someone saying, “Abbey Road Studios is now in every MacIntosh computer.” He said, “Where do they put George Martin?”

Now there’s all this pressure to offer [culture] for free because of a misunderstanding of the economics of the media business. Creative work is devalued, because you were under the illusion that you were paying for a thing. You were never really paying for a thing — you were paying for a piece of culture.

So how did we get here?

There’s a lot of unauthorized distribution because of this idea that, why can’t everyone distribute this stuff? Why should you have the monopoly over your music? How can you have a monopoly over a book or a movie? And people get upset when they hear the word “monopoly.” It’s a bad word. You should have a limited monopoly over your creative work. You don’t have that anymore. Anyone can distribute it. What keeps you from distributing a copy of my book without my authorization? Really, just the law. Twenty years ago, what kept you from distributing a book without authorization — the law. Anyone could have photocopied a book. The technology difference isn’t nearly as profound as the fact that we now have laws that we happen not to be enforcing.

Why aren’t copyrights on the Internet being enforced?

It is difficult by order of magnitude. It’s very hard to enforce copyright without violating other kinds of rights, especially privacy. But I don’t think it’s impossible. And it’s interesting to notice that most of the people who argue that it’s impossible are gaining a lot from piracy in one way or another. Public Knowledge, which is a public advocacy group in D.C. that gets some money from Google, will talk about how any kind of copyright enforcement risks people keeping track of what you’re doing online. But I’m not worried about the data NBC Universal has about me. I’m much more worried about the amount of data Facebook has about me. People don’t seem to be worried about that. It’s a bit of a double standard.

How does current copyright law contribute to the problem?

One of the other problems is a law called the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which passed in 1998. It gave [websites] a safe harbor against civil claims for copyright infringement because of action taken by your users. It wasn’t safe harbor for your actions; it was safe harbor for secondary liability for the actions of others. In other words, if you were ATT, anything you put up on your site you’d be liable for, but anything your wires were being used to transmit you would not have liability for if you took it down when someone served you a notice. And that made a lot of sense. We’re asking companies to make millions of dollars of investments in broadband infrastructure. How can they do that when they’re on the hook for so much potential liability?

But companies like YouTube took advantage of it. They said, everyone upload anything you want. Somewhere in small type it said don’t upload anything that’s copyrighted, and then hey, if you don’t like it, send us a notice. YouTube to their credit was very good at taking things down when they got notices. Later after legal pressure was brought to bear, they started filtering, and I think they’ve done a decent job filtering.

But now you have a site like Grooveshark based in Florida, they have a deal with one label — EMI; everything else is unauthorized, and they basically say, if you don’t like it, send us a letter. At some point, anything you want is up there. You can send thousands of letters; at some point it just becomes a joke. This is not what the law was meant to do. What it’s done is change copyright from opt in to opt out, where not only can’t you sell your work for a decent price because you’re being undercut but it’s a full-time job to make sure no one else is making all your money for you.

What do you think will happen if we continue down this path?

I think you’ll see less investment in creative works and less risk or both. Look at the newspaper business — we’re already there. There are fewer reporters than there were, and the result is some stories aren’t being covered. The argument on the other side is that that gap is being met by bloggers. I don’t think that’s true.

Movie studios are becoming more risk averse. It’s hard to make an expensive movie without out some kind of built-in audience. A lot of the great American movies were medium-size movies without a built-in audience, on the risky side of safe, but they were studio films.