After a celestial live music introduction to the second half of the first day by Song for Wendy, the hotly anticipated and controversial talk from ‘Free Ride’ author Robert Levine commenced, kicking off the session about copyright.
Levine claims in his book that the internet is destroying creative industries, and discussed how culture needs to fight back against the idea that “everything being free is the future.”
“It’s painted as a progressive struggle,” said Levine. “A conflict between the rights of the people and the media companies.” He insisted that despite accusations of being “anti-technology, it couldn’t be further from the truth.” He admires the innovation of
Facebook, Twitter, Bjork’s Biophilia, and acknowledges that “these couldn’t exist without copyright.”
Levine shared some sobering thoughts: “People who distribute creative works without paying for them, the Piratebay, Youtube, they’re there to make money and if they say they aren’t, they’re lying.
He argued that the value of music sales is down to half of what it was. On paper more music is selling than ever, but, as he said, “this is like saying ‘If I give you 15 pennies for a quarter, you now have more money.’ The value is going down.
He also claimed that, “a lot of activists fighting for copyright are covered by Google, they donate millions. Many law schools (also) get a lot of money from Google.” Levine argued that copyright lasts way too long, covers way too much, but hasn’t enough depth – and that it would be preferable to have a shorter, narrower monopoly, but with greater depth.
So, how important is copyright, in his opinion? “It’s very relevant,” said Levine. “The basic idea of having a temporary monopoly of your work is a good one… We hear about copyright as a barrier to human rights – copyright is a human right.”
Robert Levine has been covering pop culture, technology, and the awkward dance between them for 15 years. Most recently, he was the executive editor of Billboard, charged with running the influential music business trade magazine. He has also been a features editor at New York magazine and Wired. His first job was at HotWired.com, the Wired Web publication, where he was hired several months after it sold the first online banner ad.
His writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, Fortune, Rolling Stone, and the arts and business sections of the New York Times. He has offered commentary on the media business for CNN, CNBC, and VH-1, and spoken at the World Copyright Summit and the CMJ music conference. He holds a B.A. in politics from Brandeis and an M.S.J. from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
His first book, Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back (Doubleday), was called “brilliant if depressing” by the Times (U.K.) and garnered praise from the Guardian and the Financial Times. He now covers the culture business from New York and Berlin.
For more than a decade – since the introduction of Napster – we have been hearing about the conflict between large, old media companies and young, technology-savvy consumers. It’s a compelling story, with obvious heroes and villains, but it’s wrong. The real fight on the Internet is between the media companies that fund culture, and big technology businesses like Google that want to distribute it – legally or not. This has enriched technology companies and decimated the media business. But since most Internet traffic still involves copyrighted content, this trend could eventually leave technology companies without much to distribute. Entrepreneurs need to work with artists, rather than against them, so we don’t end up with a 21st-century infrastructure and a 17th-century conception of artists’ rights.