Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Free Ride – Robert Levine on copyright, piracy, and culture

It’s an extremely cold (but not, we insist rainy) day in Dublin and I am sitting down in Hodges Figgis Bookshop on Dawson St. I am not alone. There are a couple of other likely and some unlikely audience candidates dotting the seats which have been set up for tonight’s main event- a talk by journalist and pro-copyright spokesman Robert Levine, whose recent book Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How it Can Fight Back, has attracted not just my good self to this fine venue but also the exalted company of U2 Manager Paul McGuinness and Riverdance author Bill Whelan. Everyone now present is in fact scanning the room for the following: Copyright people, ‘anti-copyright’ people’, hackers, Google and or Amazon representatives, Bill Gates (well….he is supposed to be in Dublin this week so you never know) or – and this is the clincher, anyone who might be likely to vociferously accuse tonight’s speaker of being against human rights/freedom of speech .’The audience seems to be waiting for questions such as ‘so you are for censorship then are you?’

Copyright in the digital age, one of Levine’s main themes, is a thorny topic and not without its nuances. Levine’s position can be summed up as an argument to Techno-activist Stewart Brand’s iconic phrase that ‘information wants to be free’ which he uttered during the first Hacker’s Conference in 1984. For Levine, this ‘information’, i.e the work of creators does not necessarily want to be ‘free’- particularly as it is more often than not made available by technology companies who are more middlemen than creative advocates. Levine argues that “By making it essentially optional to pay for content, piracy has set the price of digital goods at zero. The result is a race to the bottom and the inevitable response of media companies has been cuts- first in staff, then in ambition and finally in quality.”

Levine’s position on this is in direct opposition to the likes of renowned anti-copyright activist and Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig who argues for a more open and free internet space and that what copyright actually means now is in fact “less and less to support creativity, and more and more to protect certain industries against competition” (Free Culture-How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity)

“Record companies are bad but what does that have to do with copyright? Record companies are entities that hold your contract. You might sign a good contract, you might sign a bad contract. You might sign a good contract and they cheat you, in which case you have to sue them.”

Among Levine’s Critics are Derek Slater, Policy Manager for Google Inc and Evgeny Morozov- Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation and visting scholar at Stanford University – both of whom accuse Levine of having a penchant for the overly-conspiratorial (See Morozov’s review ). Slater has criticised Levine for what he believes is a misplaced fear or resentment of such technology companies and that the real culprit for his misguided position was fear of change and perhaps some historical injury visited upon him by technology: “When I read Levine […..], I see people who have been deeply hurt somehow [……]Something else made him so angry as to lash out at the way the world is changing; at people who in some cases have more power over that change than he does; and then to create a scapegoat in Google and wish for Roman-spectacle torture.” (check out Slater’s full post onLevine and Piracy here )

For Levine, however, although copyright is in need of some fairly serious reform, it is a necessary dam for the protection of the rights of creators – and that “Most online companies whose business is built on giving away information are not funding the content they’re distributing”. According to Levine, there is a substantial gap being created between those who distribute the content and those who end up not getting paid for it.

I met Rob earlier that cold day. I stress the cold as the interview did not take place within the confines of a comfy hotel, coffee shop or trendy bookshop but on the streets, or, more specifically, in a string of used record shops on the streets of central Dublin. “There is something really cool about these places”, says Rob as we enter record store number one. “I mean, it’s not the end of the world if we don’t have them, but I do think we’ll be missing something. Shopping online is really great and I do in fact do it all the time, but it’s just not as fun!” We have entered Spindizzy Records in Georges St. Arcade and people are giving me funny looks as I try my best to direct the Dictaphone mic towards Rob and not the aggressive speakers that surround us. “Do you think this is the one Prince plays on?”, “This is a great record…it’s got a cover of absolutely sweet marie on it. I’m obsessed with Bob Dylan!”

Rob likes this shop and is momentarily distracted by the ambiguity of instrumentation on yet another recording gem. I tell him that his arrival is fairly timely in a polemical sort of way- HMV, the music chain store, has just closed and the piracy argument is raging in addition to some fairly bitter consumer reactions to unredeemable Christmas Vouchers. I ask him what he thinks about a group of now ex-employees in HMV’s Limerick store staging a sit-in over wages not being paid. “Well the fact that they’re not paying them is sleazy. I find it really funny that people online are really upset about vouchers but it would be really nice if they were upset about not paying people right?”

He continues to rifle through the Vinyl selection with apparent approval. I ask him how the shops in Dublin compare with those of Berlin- where he now lives with his girlfriend and daughter (he showed me a picture on his phone of said daughter dressed up as a pirate and said “this is the new face of piracy get it?”). “Well it’s a much more techno kind of city- you know what I mean? Berlin is the best music city in the world if you like electronic music but I’m more into rock so it’s not as cool for me. I like Berlin a lot though for different reasons though my German is still quite….awful…. Berlin is a great place to live – it’s so cheap! I miss New York too though.” And Dublin? “It’s a cool city. I really have to come back and do all the Dublin stuff.  I said I was the only person here to say that the weather is great! It’s minus 8 in Berlin. They have this great phrase to describe it. They call it Arschkalt”, he says with glee – this completely embodies that Germanic penchant for combining two rather excellent words (‘ass’ and ‘cold’) to describe a feeling simply uncapturable in the Hiberno-English vernacular (well..yet…I am working on bringing this in – watch out for #Arshkalt on your twitter machine!). “It really is quite nice here- I mean I saw the sun today, I really did! I emailed my girlfriend and was like ‘I see the sun…it’s there’! We haven’t seen it in Berlin since December.”

After having made some purchases, Rob and I then walk around the corner to Rage Records- one of the many written on his must see list (after having gotten recommendations from the twitter community). I ask him about record companies and whether or not there is an argument to be made regarding how similarly corrupt they are in relation to the companies he criticizes in his book, such as Google and Amazon: “People say that record companies and film studios are very corrupt and so therefore copyright’s bad. I’m not sure though that these two things have anything to do with each other. Record companies are bad but what does that have to do with copyright? Record companies are entities that hold your contract. You might sign a good contract, you might sign a bad contract. You might sign a good contract and they cheat you, in which case you have to sue them. In civil society if you have an agreement between two parties and get cheated you have the right to redress in a court of law. I don’t know if it’s the best solution or system but it’s got to be better than clubbing each other to death. I mean, there were deals made when people couldn’t read and the deals were fucked up- but that was in the ’50s. Now you have your garden variety bad deals but they made the deals! I’m not saying that it’s not wrong. I’m just saying that it doesn’t have much to do with copyright. I just feel that some people on the anti-copyright side have a specific point of view that may be a distraction from the real issue. If you believe that an artist has the right to make a decision you have to accept the fact that they might make a bad decision.”

What about the contract you yourself made with Random House? You are not receiving what you would call a spectacular royalty. What kind of decision did you make? “I have a publishing contract [Levine’s contract involves his taking a royalty of four dollars per book- something which has confused a lot of people seemingly]. There are two possible reasons why I did it the way I did it. Either I’m a complete idiot or (there’s another option!) they gave me something that I couldn’t get anywhere else. The distribution of a printed book is not that hard. People act like distributing shit is the height of our society. It’s not. You do need scale but warehouses and trucks…it’s not rocket science! It’s not so difficult to press up CD’s and put them in stores. Rough Trade was doing this in the ’70s you know what I mean?”

“Professional editing is important also but sadly I would argue that publishing editing is not what it was ten years ago. You could also hire an editor. God knows the world is littered with out of work editors! So why did I take that four dollars a book? The reason is that what these people do is they aggregate risk. Let’s say one out of every eight books earns back ten times its investment…..if you publish 80 books- each of which makes ten times their investment you’ve got a good business! If you are a writer and you have a one in eight chance then that’s a gamble. You then read a lot of articles about people who self publish then and make a lot of money and they talk about how smart they are. Did you ever read an article about someone who is self-published and nothing happens? Me neither.”

“I also don’t have any collateral. So I say, ‘you’re going to buy the book before I write it’. They then take a lot of risk and they give me an unspectacular royalty. So I’m guaranteed to make money upfront. So whatever happens with it I can say that I made enough money to write it. Look, no one is ever going to have big sympathy for Berlesman, which is as it should be. But they do serve a function. If they didn’t serve a function, no one would make those deals.”

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