Who Pays?

Literary Review, September 2011

Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business can Fight Back

Robert Levine, Bodley Head, £18.99

I don’t know why so few commentators have remarked on the contradiction at the heart of the Internet. Freedom is central to its rhetoric – free content, free access – and those of us who want to be paid for our original work are chided for getting in the way of those ambitions. Yet the very technology companies that want books, movies, music and journalism to be free, or at least very cheap, draw the line when it comes to their own business models. In essence, they are hi-tech delivery systems that make profits by selling advertising and offering access to material they didn’t originate and don’t own.

The American journalist Robert Levine, who has been executive editor of Billboard magazine and features editor at Wired, understands that this is the motivation behind attempts to weaken laws on copyright. ‘It isn’t out of idealism that Google spends millions of dollars to influence public policy,’ he writes:

‘For starters, looser copyright laws would make it easier for the company to make money from YouTube. In general, more free professional content online would draw more consumers away from TVs and movie theaters to the Internet, where Google dominates the market for advertising. Most of all, Google knows that its search engine works best when content is free – both of cost and of restrictions.’

Some of the more crazed digital activists attack copyright as a threat to free speech, ignoring the fact that the biggest barrier to access is the entrenched reluctance of some, though by no means all, consumers to pay even a modest amount for ‘content’. That’s a favourite Internet word, covering anything from Anna Karenina to a blog someone spent five minutes on before breakfast; it has a flattening effect, suggesting that everything is basically the same and obliterating notions such as talent, inspiration and endeavour. Google’s mission is ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’, a statement that in itself reveals an alarmingly reductive attitude to culture. There’s a world of difference between information, which is a collection of facts, and novels, biographies, poems, movies and music. But individual creators have spent the last decade and a half being characterised as dinosaurs who don’t realise that their view of culture is elitist and out of date.

In 1996, the Grateful Dead lyricist and digital activist John Perry Barlow published ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’. Addressing ‘Governments of the Industrial World’, Barlow declared that they had no sovereignty over cyberspace: ‘I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.’ Laughably self-important, it nevertheless expressed a contempt for law and regulation that was to become widespread.

Just over a decade later one of the founders of the Pirate Bay, a file-sharing service based in Stockholm, used cruder language. ‘If I want it, I take it, ’cause I can’, Peter Sunde told a BBC reporter. ‘It might be [im]moral to some people but I think it’s up to me to decide.’ The Pirate Bay attracted users and illegally distributed film and music from every country with Internet access, according to Levine; it had twenty-five million users by 2008 and represented a tenth of all Internet traffic. When the founders faced criminal charges in Sweden for contributory copyright infringement, they presented themselves as fearless libertarians standing up for the freedom of the Internet. Levine isn’t convinced, citing emails found on Pirate Bay computers by the Swedish police that suggest that ‘none of the founders were nearly as interested in any of these issues as they were in building a profitable business that happened to be illegal’. In 2010, three of the founders were given prison terms and ordered to pay around $7 million in damages, decisions they are challenging in Sweden’s Supreme Court.

Levine is no more opposed to the Internet than any of us who have found it a useful tool, whatever branch of the ‘creative economy’ we happen to work in. Of course piracy gets a great deal of attention in his book but he also understands a crucial fact, which is that even legal Internet businesses are parasitic and in danger of destroying the organisms they depend on. The Internet ‘has empowered a new group of middlemen, like YouTube, that benefit from distribution without investing in artists’. Chapter by chapter, Levine catalogues what this has done to media companies; huge Internet businesses have driven down the money paid to traditional intermediaries and hence to individual creators. Digital activists argue that this doesn’t matter because true artists will carry on producing even if they’re not paid, but it’s more likely to create a situation where only those with other sources of income or a wealthy benefactor will be able to produce the fresh ‘content’ the entire edifice depends upon.

Levine writes mostly about the US and some readers may find the plethora of organisations referred to by their initials a little hard to differentiate. He’s right to argue for a ‘content tax’ – effectively collective licensing – that would allow media companies to collect revenue in a system modelled on one that allows music companies to collect for radio play. But I’d like to have seen him address one of the most peculiar effects of the Internet, which has been to suspend the moral obligations that consumers observe in their offline behaviour. I’m not aware of instances where shoppers who insist on ‘free content’ via the Internet put the same principle into practice in Tesco’s, clearing the shelves and refusing to pay on the way out. Why some people feel it’s OK to expect something for nothing when they consume online, but not in shops, is a fascinating area for research.

Levine rightly argues that the present situation is unsustainable. Technology companies have flourished in recent years but that’s because they had a huge back catalogue to exploit. Now ‘the companies that fund those cultural products have never been in worse shape. They’re cutting jobs, and with them the ability to create and market new work. Those search engines and [digital] players won’t be nearly as valuable without them.’ In other words, acknowledging the rights of creators and making sure they get paid is in everyone’s interest. It’s a fair and rational conclusion, but I’m not sure it will make much impression on ‘free content’ fundamentalists.

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