The Reviews Are In

Well, some of them are, anyway. In a smart and thorough review, Businessweek calls Free Ride “a timely and impressive book.” Obviously, I’m biased. But I like the way the review captured the events I’m reacting to, as well as a sense that the current dysfunctional market for media online simply isn’t sustainable. “Know that old Irving Kristol maxim that a neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality?” writer David Kamp asks. “Well, Free Ride is the book for the Net utopian who has been mugged by insolvency.” I hope this is the case, since there certainly seem to be a lot of them out there.

Fortune calls my book a “smart, caustic tour of the modern culture industry.” This review, too, conveys a sense of being mugged – perhaps by consultants with faith-based business strategies. “Levine points out that after nearly two decades of dreamy, collectivist rhetoric about cyberculture, crowdsourcing, citizen journalism and the like, professional media organizations still produce the bulk of compelling online content,” Richard McGill Murphy writes. And as he shows, I have the statistics to back this up.

I further explore some of these ideas in interviews with Salon, AdWeek, and the Los Angeles Times. In the first case, especially, many commenters attack me for disliking technology or favoring blockbuster culture – neither of which I ever say. I like technology, and my own taste run toward more adventurous music. At the same time, I think that creators should be compensated for their work and technology companies need to follow laws – and there does seem to be evidence that many people prefer the Transformers movies to anything under a Creative Commons license.

Apparently, this doesn’t sit well with everyone. Techdirt, which specializes in sputtering outrage against creators who assert their rights, has decided that it wants a market for everything except creative work. “While it’s true that copyright law creates a market for copyright, there’s no economic evidence that that, in itself, is desirable,” the blog says. “If you have something that is infinitely reproducible, such as ideas, to put artificial limitations on them is economically inefficient and limits growth.”

Where to begin? First, copyright law does not limit the spread of ideas – period. (It only covers specific expressions of ideas.) Second, this is the law of the land. “The Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression,” according to a majority opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in a 1985 case. “By establishing a marketable right to the use of one’s expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate.” Third – and this is something that techies just can’t seem to get their heads around – the professional creative work that accounts for a substantial share of Internet traffic isn’t generated by computers or by artists suckered into signing away their rights to Sergey Brin’s mother-in-law. Not only does this work create growth and jobs in media businesses, it practically created the Internet as we know it. Finding this work is what most people use the Internet for.

These days, technology companies like to claim they don’t need professional content to succeed – that they can do just fine transmitting home videos and amateur writing. If that’s true, though, why are they so intent on signing deals with media companies?



14 thoughts on “The Reviews Are In

  1. I don’t agree that people who use “creative commons” licenses are “suckers”. There are a million reasons why an amateur writer/ musician/ filmmaker might not want to go pro. Likewise, even for a professional, there are valid business reasons to give away some content under some circumstances.

    If you’re going to give away content, but you don’t want to abandon it to the public domain, then you need to send it out under a license. If you are not a lawyer, it is a very bad idea to draft your own license. The creative commons license is one valid, no-cost solution to this problem.

    Posted by MTM | November 7, 2011, 6:18 pm
  2. I was being glib – they’re not exactly suckers and they’re not exactly signing away rights to Brin’s mother-in-law. But I do question whether these licenses are in the interests of creators. Mostly, I’m not sure why creators can’t simply announce what rights they’ll give up; in the music world, some bands have let fans record concerts for years without a special license. This gives creators more flexibility, since they can change what they allow over time. Also, some of the licenses are very vague on important matters such as whether ads can be sold against content, and they all allow work to be “shared” on file-sharing networks, even when they operate commercially. Lastly, the licenses simply don’t reflect the interests of creators because no creators were involved in drafting them; they were drafted by and for anti-copyright activists.

    Posted by roblevine1 | November 8, 2011, 6:44 am
  3. The CC license can’t exist without a strong copyright. period.
    The reason a person probably shouldn’t use a CC license:
    You can’t ‘change your mind’ at a future date. Once a single copy of a work is out there with CC… there’s no going back.
    ANYthing and EVERYthing that can be done with a CC, can be better done with Traditional copyright… there’s simply no need for it in most instances.

    Posted by James_J | November 8, 2011, 5:16 pm
    • Google obviously sees a need for it! That’s why they fund it.

      Posted by roblevine1 | November 8, 2011, 6:34 pm
      • Gee, could it be because CC licenses allow them to make more money? Yep, even if they’re the non-commercial ones.

        Since “[t]he exchange of the Work for other copyrighted works by means of digital file-sharing or otherwise shall not be considered to be intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation, provided there is no payment of any monetary compensation in connection with the exchange of copyrighted works” (CC Attribution-Non-commercial-No-derivates license 3.0, BY-NC-ND – the most restrictive license BTW – Section 4. a.), hosting CC material and displaying ads alongside it (or charging for hosting/access) is a perfectly valid business model (just ask Flickr).

        (Aside: IIRC they had an explicit exclusion of advertising from “commercial activity” in a previous version of their non-commercial licences. Any guesses as to why that went?)

        Whenever you want to make money from advertising, you need an audience. CC licensed works are a good audience-magnet, because they’re free (to share at the very least). The more creators can be convinced to publish under CC, the greater the likelihood of higher quality content being available (=more potential eyeballs). Lastly, it doesn’t really matter whether Google has it’s own service that runs on CC, or if they supply advertising to a third party – it makes money either way.

        Posted by Faza (TCM) | November 10, 2011, 10:02 pm
  4. These days, technology companies like to claim they don’t need professional content to succeed – that they can do just fine transmitting home videos and amateur writing. If that’s true, though, why are they so intent on signing deals with media companies?

    If you look at the ‘Top 10’ of any of these sites, YouTube for example… at any given time 9/10 of the most popular content is professionally produced…
    It is the professional content that has the most draw for these sites… as much as one likes watching kitten videos…

    Posted by James_J | November 8, 2011, 5:19 pm
  5. These are all very interesting comments, but let’s get back to the topic of the post, the reviews. Congrats to you Robert. Well deserved IMHO.

    Hopefully the fact that Free Ride is getting good press points to the tide turning away from the view that everything should be online and free, and moving back to the fact that creators still need to be paid.

    At the very least this is is testament to Robert’s skill at laying out the topic in a clean and convincing way and having, as he points out, he has “statistics to back this up”. That alone has taken the argument out of the emotional realm it has been in for so long and shines a hard light on it. Parasites don’t like the light…

    As for tech companies trying to sign deals with media creators, Google seems to be making some headway. In this case signing a deal with Vivid Entertainment. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/11/07/vivid_entertainment_on_google_tv/
    That’s right, Google TV’s very own 24/7 porn channel.

    I wonder what Esther Wojcicki thinks about that?

    Posted by TMD | November 9, 2011, 7:31 am
  6. RE: Google/Vivid…

    …that is probably the tech geeks worst nightmare: NO More Free Porn!
    That’s why half of them are up in arms… (pun?)

    (if they actually got out of their cave every once in a while, they might actually get a real girlfriend… or not…)

    P.S. +1 to congrats on the well deserved good reviews!

    Posted by James_J | November 9, 2011, 7:53 pm
  7. I agree with you that creators should be compensated for their work and it does seem that tech companies are very good at coming up with ways to overcome that pesky problem–by using amateur journalists as you point out. If people are willing to write for free then that devalues the professional code and creative force of those who make their living putting words to paper or e-ink.

    As you state in your book, “This isn’t creative destruction; it’s the destruction of creativity.”

    Kudos on the reviews! They are well deserved.

    Posted by pranaknits (@pranaknits) | November 9, 2011, 9:55 pm
  8. Robert,

    Don’t forget to mention the existence of the two titles for the same book. It certainly had me confused for a while. 🙂

    Posted by Pieter | November 15, 2011, 9:40 am
  9. I love you and it’s nice to see someone else take on those obnoxious brats at tech dirt. I’m a full time composer and have been for thirty years, have employed hundreds of people and created much wage and revenue, and yet when I put a mild question on that blog I was told my career was equivalent to a plumber and plumbers don’t get paid every time somebody flushes a toilet!

    Posted by chmch | November 15, 2011, 10:53 pm
    • A website with open comments does attract all sorts of idiots. 🙂 Generally I don’t have a problem with the articles at Techdirt (not that I agree with all of them), but I do agree that some of the comments are simply ridiculous.

      Posted by Pieter | November 16, 2011, 9:35 am
  10. @Chmch, that’s great to hear. As you might imagine, I get plenty of – ahem! – critical comments, so it’s nice to hear some supportive ones as well.

    Posted by roblevine1 | November 15, 2011, 11:12 pm

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What people are saying

"A wonderfully clear-eyed account of this colossal struggle over the future of our cultural lives."
—Bill Keller, New York Times

"A book that should change the debate about the future of culture."
—New York Times Book Review

“A timely and impressive book.”

A “smart, caustic tour of the modern culture industry.”


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