Book Review: Free Ride by Robert Levine

Why the war against Internet pirates and freeloaders now seems winnable

Free Ride: How Digital Parasites
Are Destroying the Culture Business,
and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back

By Robert Levine
Doubleday; 320pp; $26.95


The decade before this one was rife with stories of how uncool it is to expect money for online-accessible content. In 2000, Lars Ulrich of the band Metallica was condemned as a greedy, out-of-touch “cyber narc” for daring to take on the file-sharing service Napster in court. Five years later, the New York Times was widely mocked for its first attempt at a paywall, TimesSelect, which charged users for the right to read its Op-Ed columnists and tap into its archives online. After an ignominious two years, the program was scrapped.

Yet this past March, the Times reinstituted a paywall program: a necessary measure, publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. said, to “strengthen our ability to provide high-quality journalism to readers around the world and on any platform.” Now, as if to bolster Sulzberger’s resolve, comes Free Ride, Robert Levine’s unrelenting indictment of the free-content ethos that has dominated digital activism. Know that old Irving Kristol maxim that a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality? Well, Free Ride is the book for the Net utopian who has been mugged by insolvency. It’s a riposte of sorts to Chris Anderson’s 2009 book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, which posits that in the digital economy, “free is not just an option, it’s the inevitable endpoint.”

Levine, a former executive editor of Billboard magazine, is here to say that this line of thinking is, to use the clinical macroeconomics term, a load of bollocks. The model of offering up content for free and making up for this lost revenue stream through advertising may work well for the likes of Google, YouTube, and the Huffington Post, but it’s hell on the original-content creators upon which these sites ultimately depend: the professional class of reporters, authors, musicians, filmmakers, and producers whose work—books, articles, songs, TV shows, and movies—is still what the public is ultimately looking for.

One of the strengths of Free Ride is that it is not the spittle-laced jeremiad of a content creator wronged but a turbo-reported (if undeniably opinionated) analysis of how we’ve arrived at this circumstance. Levine focuses on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a U.S. law passed in 1998 to address the legality or illegality of materials disseminated in digital formats. The cultural climate of the Nineties seemed to favor the tech companies that found copyright laws too strict and were, after all, ushering in the Internet Age. Addressing the “Governments of the Industrial World” in a 1996 manifesto, the sometime Grateful Dead lyricist and early digital activist John Perry Barlow declared, “I come from Cyberspace, the new home of the Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.”

In Levine’s view, the promise of a lightly regulated, copyright-averse, freebie-laden Internet has unraveled much in the same way that late-Sixties experiments in free love and communal living curdled into Seventies nightmares of hard drugs, broken families, and leaky geodesic domes. In the world of news-gathering, he laments, “Aggregators like Google News and the Huffington Post excerpt or summarize the work of other publications without adding much to it, besides a link that few readers follow”—all the while competing for the same ad dollars as the endangered, cash-strapped organizations that actually put reporters on the ground. What’s more, the newspapers’ expectation that Internet ad prices would someday approach the level of print ones has not panned out. Levine cites a study that says an average print reader is worth $539 to an advertiser, while an average online reader is worth only $26.

Levine casts a sympathetic light on such heretofore unpitied entities as movie studios and record labels. By kicking in production money, these 20th century holdovers yield better results, he argues, than the hodgepodge of DIY software and services (Pro Tools, Final Cut Pro, an awesome Twitter feed) that were supposed to have liberated artists from corporate tyranny. The author even lines up a titan of alt-rock in his corner to back him up on this point. “How is the up-and-coming band going to quit their jobs and focus on music if they’re not signed?” asks Jack White. “If the music is free and no one’s buying the record, who’s paying for it to be made?”

As for the DMCA, it has thus far proven to be more the disseminator-aggregator’s friend than the creator’s. YouTube successfully argued when sued by Viacom that it is entitled to safe-harbor protection from claims that it profits from pirated material uploaded by users as long as it demonstrates no actual knowledge of copyright infringement and complies with requests by copyright holders to take down unauthorized material. That this places the policing burden upon the Old Media content provider—forcing Viacom’s lawyers to play Whac-A-Mole every time a bootleg Colbert Report clip pops up on YouTube—does not sit well with the author.

Levine has a big beef with YouTube’s parent, Google, arguing that it presents itself as a benign beacon of Internet openness while working behind the scenes to game public policy to its advantage. This is rather too broad a brush with which to paint the behemoth of search, which has done more good than harm in transforming the way many creatives go about their business. Levine finds a more deserving target in the Pirate Bay, the Stockholm-based file-sharing site whose founders come straight out of a Stieg Larsson novel—presenting themselves as affably anarchic jesters and free-speech advocates when, in truth, their moneyman has financed several right-wing nationalist organizations and their e-mail exchanges suggest a concerted interest in tax evasion.

How to counter the free ride described in Free Ride? Levine doesn’t have original solutions, but he supplies some good examples of what’s already working. The publisher of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette relates how he chose, back in 2001, to charge for his paper’s Web content, which gave him the means to retain his newsroom staff. Admirably unafraid to fly his capitalist freak flag, Levine argues that “closed systems” such as iPad apps are healthy for commerce and creativity—even if this challenges the wisdom of Tim Berners-Lee, the big brain that begat the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee has said that he is troubled that many magazines have developed such apps “because that material is off the Web. You can’t bookmark it or e-mail a link to a page within it. You can’t tweet it.” To which Levine counters, “If the Web was entirely open … you also couldn’t sell it.”

Free Ride is not without its gaps, chief among them an unsupplied explication of just how “free” free content really is. Given that we’ve become accustomed to paying sizable monthly bills for in-home broadband service and monthly data plans for our tablets and smartphones, have we simply redistributed the money we used to spend on entertainment media rather than saved it? Then there’s that occupational hazard of writing a book about very current affairs: Events overtake the manuscript’s delivery date. There is no mention of the Times’s Paywall 2.0—a qualified success thus far—and, for his spirited defense of charging for content, “polished and pragmatic” James Murdoch of News Corp. is presented as part of a dynamic father-son media duo with the potential “to become saviors of journalism.” Oops.

Still, Free Ride is a timely and impressive book—part guilt trip, part wake-up call, and full of the kind of reporting that could only have been done with a book advance from an Old Media company.

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