This is my review (for the Independent) of the Robert Levine book Free Ride: How The Internet Destroyed The Culture Business, And How the Culture Business Can Fight Back. The book is fascinating, detailed and dogged in its defence of intellectual copyright in the digital age - but I think it lacks a wider societal context, to explain the take up of the "open web" and its distinctive attitude to the sharing (rather than the purchasing) of cultural artefacts.
I didn't really explore this angle in the review, but I am brewing up a proper Socratic exchange with the Scottish writer Ewan Morrison, whose clarion-call to prevent "The End of Books" at this years Edinburgh International Books Festival caused quite a fuss. Ewan is embracing and endorsing Levine's argument completely - and we've begun our detailed exchange on this Facebook post. But watch this space, because I think we'll be announcing a more engaged, and public, discussion about this soon. Meantime, all comments welcomed below.
How To Sink The Pirates of The Web
Unedited Review of Robert Levine's Free Ride in The Independent, 2 September, 2011 (edited version)
By Pat Kane
My eldest geek daughter and I were helpless with laughter the other night, rapt at our screens before another webcast discovery.
We had found a brilliant “mash-up”: footage of the Sesame Street character Cookie Monster, lip-synching precisely to the Tom Waits song “God’s Away On Business”. (Really, get thee to a search engine now: your day will be beatified). Such a diverting, obsessional labour of love is what we celebrate about the internet - amateur energies coursing through democratic tools, coming to mass attention from nowhere.
But what might the respective intellectual-property lawyers from Henson Enterprises, or Waits’s record label Anti, have to say about such a wisp of joy? According to Robert Levine, they should be fully empowered to discourage such irreverent bricolage, with all manner of punitions and legal threats.
In this comprehensive but relentless book, Levine (an ex-editor of US music business bible Billboard) wants to make us realise that the internet’s facilitation of “free culture” - or a world of piracy to some - has to come to an end. His case is that technology companies have built their businesses - whether web-based and advertiser-driven, or integrated device companies like Apple - on the basis of unpriced (or underpriced) content, made possible by the open (or more precisely, under-controlled) web. Levine has made an very authoritative attempt to substantiate the content creators’ fightback.
But his angst for the good old days of the music business (roughly the early to mid 90’s, before those subversive, system-wielding geeks came to spoil the party) also reveals some rather grisly commercial assumptions. For example, one of his problems with iTunes, even though it’s a monetised service, is that it “unbundles” the album. The consumer is now able to spend less money picking off favourite tracks - rather than, as before, having to spend more money on a complete magnum opus (including those interminable urban soundscape tracks on the second CD).
Yet Levine has no appreciation for how this unbundling allows listeners to create their own stimulating playlists, refining and amplifying their musical enthusiasms. Would this ultimately result in more spend per consumer? Levine cites studies that say no, against others that say yes - but he also admits there is a general failure of objective market research in this area. Yet it’s indicative of the overly corporate, pro-bottom-line tone of this book that even Apple’s brilliant, integrated and mostly successful effort to commercialise the infinitely copyable is worth his sustained grouch.
What would a “functioning market” for digital culture look like for Levine? A balance of stick and carrot, entrepreneurship and regulation, which he calls “blanket” or “collective licensing”. The carrots are well-designed content “services” (the current exemplar is the music-streaming service Spotify). We receive a bountiful - but licensed - downpour of music (Levine thinks it could be extended to other media, like tv and journalism) to our various screens and headphones.
It would “feel like free”, because the user experience is the same click-frenzy as present: it wouldn’t be free, however, because our actual payment would be subsumed into the rental fees we pay for our information devices. (Levine predicts that we would have to accept some price rises in these rents).
The “stick” part is that licenses, obviously, have to be enforced. Performing Rights Society inspectors already go round radio stations, restaurants and cafes, making sure these establishments are paying their dues for playing music. So a software equivalent would regularly monitor the usages of these services across the networks - ensuring that some agreed proportion of revenues is returned to the rights-holders (be they corporations or individual musicians).
Levine hopes we can redefine copyright, “the right to copy” - an unenforceable absurdity after ten years of the vast copy-machine known as the Web - as copyrisk. Like traditional actuaries gathering together pools of money to insure against the inevitable risk of shipwreck (or car accident), the content business needs to find a way to collectively compensate authors and creators for the healthy turbulence of internet usage.
You almost feel sorry for Levine, in all his mercantile passion, when he discovers where these “collective licensing” agreements are already proving most successful: in Northern Europe, from Ireland to Germany, Denmark to Finland. That is, in national cultures where “they socialize any number of expenses that others would view as private. And as anyone involved in health care can tell you”, he continues sorrowfully, “what works smoothly in Scandinavia can start fights in the US”.
His call for a “statutory approach” in his own country, as the American polity gyres and gambles on its various fundamentalist axes, seems rather forlorn.
Ian Hargreaves’ constructive recent Digital Economy report in the UK would seem to chime with this European approach. He suggested a one-stop Digital Rights Exchange, which would help make intellectual property somewhat more trackable - and thus licensable - across the expanding wilds of bandwidth.
And away from the heavy-metal clangour of “thieves” and “property-owners” (oh enough of that, for the moment) it’s the filigree of patient, intelligent policy - forged through a boring old stakeholder-driven commitment to a well-regulated mixed economy - that will bring stability to these debates. Which labours, to his credit, Levine fully endorses.
Incidentally, Hargreaves’ report makes an astute and charming proposal: we should recognise the rights of parodists and satirists to recombine digital material, without Matrix-like IP lawyers swooping down to exterminate them. It looks like, at least in this jurisdiction, that Cookie Monster Tom will continue to flap his gums freely. Our house will be pleased.