In his new book, Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, longtime Rolling Stone contributor Robert Levine tackles head-on the subject of digital piracy and how tech giants such as Apple and Google are booming while the creators of content keep getting hurt. He argues forcefully for stronger copyright protection and offers ways to reach that goal. Levine recently talked to Playback about some of the issues he discusses in his book.
Where did the saying "Information wants to be free" originate and who pushed that idea out into the world?
It's a quote, but it doesn't mean what people think it means. The original meaning is a quote by Stewart Brand, who founded the Whole Earth Catalog. His original quote is actually "Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive…that tension will not go away." What he was talking about is basically the idea that the cost of transmitting information is getting lower and lower every year. But the cost of creating that information doesn't go away.
For example, if I am writing a song, transmitting that song online is essentially free. Transmitting it around gets cheaper every year. What about writing a song? That's not done automatically. That's what Stewart Brand meant, but the quote has been perverted by people who started saying that information should be free as a "motto" but that's just a misunderstanding.
And that idea fed into Chris Anderson's thesis in his book Free: The Future of a Radical Price?
Right. He believes that digital drives the cost of content down to zero, or near its marginal cost? But this idea about pricing things accordingly with marginal cost comes from, like, the auto business. It's not relevant to our business. If you think about it, can you think of anything in media that has been priced in its marginal cost. Back in the 50's, a piece of vinyl anything was never priced in its marginal cost. Media is not a marginal-priced business. Even a book. I think a hardback book is probably the most expensive piece of mass media. It cost $3.50. A piece of celluloid film cost $1,500. But no one ever suggested you should sell that piece of celluloid for $1,500. To say that you price things to hit marginal cost is a total misunderstanding of the media business.
Do you think that this "free culture" ideology has infiltrated the tech giants since so many people in positions of power are younger and have grown up with easy access to music and other intellectual property?
The idea that other people's stuff should be free is not an ideology. Calling it an ideology is giving it a dignity that it doesn't deserve. It's not an ideology, it's an illusion.
What you have is people making money from content, and they want to be able to keep making money from content. People who make money distributing content without paying for it will want to continue making money by not paying for it. They can say they are doing things for the good of the country, or whatever, but they are not doing anything that is not in their own selfish interests. Google is championing free culture because they make a lot of money distributing other people's stuff.
Most people who work in the music industry love and value music. Many who work in book publishing love and value books. What, besides the obvious, do you feel those who work for technology companies value?
A lot of people in the tech industry are driven by a passion for technology. I think if you look at how those organization behave, they tend to behave in a much more rational way.
Fundamentally, Google is about spreading technology and making money. But I think people get confused and they think ASCAP wants to restrict the Internet and Google wants to spread the Internet. That's nonsense. ASCAP wants to make money for your members and Google wants to make money for their shareholders. Now, I'm more sympathetic to your point of view because ASCAP is a more like a union than a corporation.
Technically, we're a not-for profit membership organization.
Right. And your members did the damn work. But, even still. You can get up on a stage and say people will do better work if we pay them and we will all have a better market. But some people will look at you like it's the most radical thing you said all day. But isn't that common knowledge? You give me money, I'm going to work harder, write a better book, whatever. That's the basic of economics.
In your book you discuss Google and their ties to other groups who are actively trying to sway public opinion and lobby Congress on their behalf. Tell me a little more about the more prominent organizations and individuals?
As I did research for the book, I was shocked by all the money that Google spends on funding these organizations. They are non-neutral organizations. Two weeks after Google bought YouTube, they made a two million dollar donation to Stanford Law School. Stanford Law School announced that the money would go toward establishing a balance between ownership and the right to access information. Now, there's two issues with that. One, the right to access information is missing from my copy of the Constitution. I like the right to access information but I am not aware that it's a constitutional right.
Access to information is a public good; it's a wonderful thing. It's just not a right. Stanford Law School says that they do not expect donations that are geared toward a specific thing. But then on the other hand, they announced what they were doing with this money. The question is should we take a look at this because it's Google's money? I think yes.
Now, Creative Commons is pushing Google's agenda. The mother-in-law of Sergey Brin [co-founder of Google], who has no background in law and no background in copyright, is Vice of their board. She is there because Sergey Brin gave a lot of money. This is not serving the best interest for artists; this is serving the best interests for Google. People say that Creative Commons is doing important work and what they're trying to do is great, but if you want to have a serious, respected organization it needs to have a serious respected board. What you have now is a joke, so if you want to be taken seriously, put artists on the board.
What are your feelings about the tech companies' opposition to the PROTECT IP Act?
People on the other side don't say, "Hey, we have certain problems with these certain parts of the PROTECT IP Act." They say, "We don't want any legislation at all, things are fine." I think it's time for the other side, if they don't like this act, to come up with another solution to protect our rights.
What's the most important message songwriters should take away from your book?
You have rights. You have the right to get paid for distribution, reproduction and public performances of your work. You have the right to control your work. You might not always want to use them. But that doesn't mean that they are not important and that doesn't mean that you should give them away. Let alone give them away to large corporations.
What can songwriters and composers do on a day-to-day basis that can help protect the value of their work?
Know the value of your work and don't give it away too cheaply. Even if what you do is a hobby to you, it's a business to somebody else, and that business has expenses. Another thing, if you do something for a discount or promotional basis, make sure it's not permanent. If you want to give your songs away, then give your songs away. Don't sign a Creative Commons license, because you can't take it back. A Creative Commons deal is like one of those old record deals. Like when you sign away your rights in exchange for a Cadillac. But with this deal, you don't get a car.