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Q&A: ‘Free Ride’ Author Rob Levine on Why ‘Free’ Downloading Is Actually Costly

The former Billboard editor on why Google is no better than a record label

Sometimes sampling is theft. Downloads are turning the internet into a Walmart. Google is no better than a record label. Torrents are killing culture. In Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, former Billboard executive editor Robert Levine presents sharp challenges to the “free culture” narrative that has defined digital media since the dawn of Napster.

In an age defined by championing free music and free media, Levine considers the “information wants to be free” credo as a self-serving slogan for multi-million-dollar tech firms like YouTube or Google to aggregate or stream the professional content that media companies — labels, publishers, Hollywood — are funding with increasing difficulty. Since many of those creative-types tend to be musicians, we took interest, and got some straight talk about copyright law that may make you think twice before seeding that Bon Iver album.

What’s wrong with copyright law?
The problem isn’t necessarily with the law; it’s in the way it’s been interpreted. People ask me, “Could you make Paul’s Boutique today?” The samples there, I think, should qualify as fair use. Now let’s look at “Otis.” Most reasonable people would say the song is really built around the sample; Otis Redding and songwriters deserve compensation. People believe reasonable things. It’s just you have [Harvard Law Professor] Lawrence Lessig out there saying that you should be able to do all this stuff for free and it’s an affront to free speech. You talk about Paul’s Boutique without ever mentioning “Otis.” I think that’s a big problem.

What’s the biggest obstacle to supporting intellectual property?
People are confusing “creative infringement” with “consumptive infringement.” If you make Paul’s Boutique, you are infringing people’s copyright in a creative way. There’s a free speech issue there. If you’re downloading those songs illegally, there’s no free speech issue. You have to treat those things separately. The first amendment doesn’t bear very heavily on your right to use Grokster.

If you’re running a business based off the work of others: that’s not right. Grooveshark has a Mercedes ad. That’s wrong. People really are down on copyright law: That’s fine. No one is enthusiastic about speed limits. We have annoying laws that people hate and there’s a penalty and most people follow laws. The penalty we have now is absurdly high and I don’t think it should come down on individuals; it should come down on companies that have made a business out of this.

You argue that such companies are essentially parasites; that they don’t invest in the screenwriters or musicians behind the content they provide
If you think about the different arts, to me, the one that’s in the golden age now is television. TV has a business model where you can get paid subscriptions, as well as selling ads. Mad Men and Breaking Bad could not be supported on advertising alone. The business model they have let’s you make more daring art profitable. Unfortunately, the internet is really jeopardizing that.

There is this sense that so far all the books have been about giving it away for free and seeing what happens. I didn’t interview a lot of musicians but I interview Jack White. His take is: “Why would I just give away my album for free? It cost money to make. Artists need label deals, whatever size, because that let’s them quit their day jobs and devote more time to their art.” I think it’s hard to argue with that. When you sign a record company deal, it’s a contractual relationship. With websites you don’t get to choose. They didn’t ask your permission. You don’t vote. They’re making money on what you’re doing without compensating you.

Remember, EMI spent a lot of money making Radiohead famous. And Radiohead’s kind of like, “Screw these guys, they’re horrible.” Maybe, but it worked out pretty well for them. I’m not saying they owe it all to EMI — that’s absurd. To say that EMI did nothing would be pretty rude too. It’s like a marriage: you fight, but to some extent you’re in it together. You’re not in it together with The Pirate Bay.

If people are willing to pay for professional content, why aren’t we?
This has been framed as an issue where it’s like big media vs. the people. The truth is, it’s one group of big companies vs. another group of big companies, and one has managed to package their agenda as civil rights. We’ve been having this conversation about cool Silicon Valley executives and greedy record labels, but it’s a class-war between billionaires in Silicon Valley and billionaires in Hollywood.

So, “free culture” is an agenda unto itself?
You hear a lot about the MTAA and the RIAA lobbying, and that’s fair. At the same time Google also lobbies — they just don’t call it lobbying. I think that in a way is more dangerous because you think these people are on your side. Google is on Google’s side. Google is not Woodstock; it’s a technology company. You shouldn’t trust Google any more than you should trust Universal Music.