‘The Internet Community Is Always in a Complete Lather’

'Free Ride' author talks digital piracy bills in Congress

With the debate over bills meant to crack down on digital piracy heating up on Capitol Hill, Adweek caught up with Robert Levine, author of Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, which came out late last month. He spoke by phone while buying vinyl in a Nashville music store.

Adweek: What first got you interested in digital copyright issues?

Levine: I've always covered music and technology. Between 2002-2004 I was working at Wired and it was a really big deal. At first I thought, "This is the future: music artists can go around labels, we just need to figure this out." But that never really happened because you never saw a legitimate market emerge for free online media. And if paying is optional, it's not a functional market.

What changed your view?

When I was researching my book, I was shocked to find out that the same people who argued music and video should be free were getting money from Google. I found out that this issue isn't between the people and media companies, it's between media companies and tech companies. One week, the media companies are in Washington, and the next week, it's the tech companies and venture capitalists.

Why won't "free" work on the Internet?

On the one hand, there is a public interest that The New York Times should be free online, but if it's free, the NYT won't send reporters to Iraq. Traditionally, media companies like the NYT had a limited amount of advertising space. Now with the Internet, the supply of ad space has exploded, but the demand hasn't changed. Advertising won't fund as much free media as it used to.

The IP bills in Congress have the Internet community in a lather. The Electronic Frontier Foundation said the Stop Online Piracy Act could "break the Internet." Are they right?

The Internet community is always in a complete lather. They operate on one setting, hysterical. I've never seen them try to look at the issue from the other side. When they say these bills will break the Internet, what does that mean? I think I'm against breaking the Internet, but it's not a china plate. The quality of conversation is low about the bills. But the other side isn't saying, "What about this?" They just say it's unacceptable to apply any law to the online world.

How did the content community become the bad guys in this debate?

RIAA's decision to sue individuals was really damaging to their side of the argument. I don't think it was a horrible injustice, but it was stupid and it cost them more than it got them. It still colors the copyright debate and it's this issue that people will never let them live down.

How did the tech and Internet community become the good guys?

We're now establishing Internet companies like Google that have too much power. If you're against corporate power, you're against corporate power. Google's market share is very high. It can use its search dominance to its advantage. When media companies lobby, it's terrible, but when Google lobbies, they're helping people understand complicated issues. What's upsetting is that when one side does it, it's OK, but when another does, it's not.

Google's idea of the Internet is where everyone is regulated except them. They're not evil, just human. We should recognize it's the product of an agenda. Google isn't trying to defend the open Internet; they are defending their agenda. So any one who defends copyright is set upon. You'll hear crazy stuff.

Is that why people have been saying these bills would have stopped Justin Bieber back when he was just making videos on YouTube?

What won't these people do? These bills won't have anything to do with Justin Bieber. Why are they out there saying something that is blatantly untrue? Any lawyer will tell you that. It's unfortunate. So on the one hand [content companies] are facing companies with a lot of money, but there's also a sense they're facing a mob.

Are you a content business lobbyist?

Just about every content company found something in the book they were unhappy about. The crowd brings out the worst in people. The quality of the conversation suffers. If you don't want to defend rights, how would you enforce it? If you don't want to enforce it all, you're creating a problem.

Where is the consumer in this debate?

This debate isn't about the consumer. It's about big money versus big money. Look who is going to Washington to object; it's all venture capitalists. They are wigged out about these bills. They want to preserve their right to build a business on someone else's back. That doesn't mean they're wrong, but we should be listening to them with a grain of salt. Google's interest is not the public's interest.

What's at stake?

I'll tell you what isn't at stake. What isn't at stake is creativity. People will always be creative. A lack of copyright protections would take away people's ability to get their work invested in. You could do things cheap, but they won't be as good as the things that can be invested in. Ultimately, the Internet would suffer; it is built on professional content. For example, much on YouTube is a parody of major media product, so if that goes away, what will you make fun of?

How can the two models, the one envisioned by content copyright holders and the free, open Internet model, come together?

We need thoughtful laws. This should be the start of the conversation. It shouldn't be the end of the conversation. But the idea that you shouldn't enforce any [copyright] laws is a nonstarter. We need to move away from that. We need to ask how do we regulate the Internet? You can't have a market without property rights. The idea that you'll have no enforcement should be greeted with laughter. I'm not seeing any alternative come out. 

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