roblevine1 has written 40 posts for FREE RIDE

When did SOPA stop beating its wife?

In Free Ride, I case a skeptical eye on Google’s contributions to universities like Stanford and Harvard, as well as organizations like Creative Commons and the New America Foundation. Reactions have varied: Journalists taught to follow the money see this as responsible reporting, while academics with fellowships at Google-funded institutions cried foul.The institutions, all of which I contacted for comments, objected as well.

You can decide for yourself if I have a point. When I did a Businessweek story on this issue, I got the following response from Stanford Law School: “As an institution, Stanford Law School does not take an advocacy position on issues, political or otherwise, and maintains a position of strict autonomy when it comes to academic research.” (The statement also contained information on its research policies.) And yet tomorrow the Stanford Law School’s Center for Information and Society will hold a panel on “What’s Wrong With SOPA?” that will “explore the potential impact of SOPA on Silicon Valley, the concerns that have been voiced by legal scholars, technology companies, entrepreneurs, engineers and venture capitalists, and what the technology sector can do to make a difference in the outcome of this bill.” Panelists include two Stanford professors, a Google copyright counsel, a venture capitalist, a former Google attorney, two top executives at technology companies – and no one who seems to believe this bill isn’t a menace to society as we know it.

Personally, I think SOPA is too vague – I think most of the objections to the bill are hysterical, but it needs to be more specific. I’m sure that plenty of people who read this blog will disagree, and that’s fair enough – this is an important issue that deserves serious debate. But does online copyright infringement ever really receives serious debate at Stanford, where Google has donated generously to the Law School and the university’s dean sits on the company’s board? (There are two sides to a debate: One of the panelists, Fred von Lohmann, is an extremely smart lawyer and a nice guy but I’m not sure who he’d debate with.) Could they not find anyone to argue the other side?

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone who objects to SOPA favors piracy or anything like that: There are serious issues about which reasonable people can disagree. But how much disagreement will there be at a panel that seems structured to come off like a pep rally? If these lawyers have convictions and the arguments to back them up, shouldn’t they go out of their way to invite the other side? More important, isn’t this exactly the kind of issue that Stanford’s statement says it doesn’t take an advocacy position on?


Astroturf Alerts

Slowly but surely, mainstream publications are catching on to the fact that the debate over PROTECT IP and SOPA involved giant corporate interests on both sides. In a smart New York magazine story, Jason Zengerle points out that “SOPA is just an old-­fashioned Washington battle between two entrenched corporate camps.” I am biased, since he quoted me, but I think he’s right.

Does that mean we should simply accept SOPA the way it is? No – I think that debating these issues is important, and I hope it leads to a more specific bill that will accomplish the same goals. But having that debate means recognizing how much money Google and other technology companies are spending to influence it. Say what you want about the MPAA – they’re very open about where their funding comes from. The New America Foundation is not nearly as transparent. The organization does important work on many issues, but it seems worth noting that it made technology policy more of a priority after Eric Schmidt became chairman of its board of directors. If Disney chief executive Bob Iger ran a think tank, I don’t think journalists would take what it said at face value – and they would be right not to.

Levine Comes Alive!

Because you demanded it, here are two recordings from my U.S. tour.*

Here’s a Podcast from my appearance at Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center For Art, Enterprise & Public Policy.

And here’s a video of my appearance at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication.


*To be entirely honest, no one demanded this and my “U.S. tour” amounted to a handful of speaking engagements punctuated by inconvenient air travel and fast food. But I had fun!

Google Celebrates “Sawyersourcing”

One of the things I love about Google, and there are a few, is the clever illustrations it uses to decorate its home page. At first these “Google Doodles” appeared mostly on holidays – St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day. New Year’s. By the middle of the last decade, the company had started celebrating iconic birthdays – of Albert Einstein, Vincent Van Gogh,and other icons. Over the last few years, those lovable rascals at the Googleplex seem to be having so much fun that they’ve found fun ways to mark various elections, Dr. Seuss’ birthday, and the 50th Anniversary of the LEGO Brick. Sometimes, part of the fun is seeing them honor geek icons who aren’t well-known to the general public: The Doodle for Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science fiction author who wrote “Solaris,” is a wonder to behold.

Of course, Googlers aren’t known for their sense of irony. Today the company’s homepage honors the birthday of Mark Twain. What’s interesting is the way it does so. The illustration looks like a comic strip with three panels. In the first, one boy hands his friend a paint can; in the second, he watches as his friend paints a fence; in the third, he offers a thumbs-up for his buddy’s work as his friend sits, exhausted, on the ground. The scene evokes “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” when Tom’s Aunt Polly makes him whitewash her fence and he tricks his friends into doing the work by convincing them that it’s fun.

In modern terms, this might be called “Sawyersourcing” – and few companies have done more to promote it than Google. Jimmy Wales is more of a Sawyer-esque character, a quintessentially American huckster who talked people he never met into writing an encyclopedia for him, then convinced the media that he wanted to run a charity even though he’s an Objectivist. But Google made this idea respectable by making large donations to Creative Commons, Harvard’s Berkman Center, and other institutions. Sometimes, Sawyersourcing produces great work. But technology companies, like Tom, rarely volunteer to share the wealth the way they share the work.

Twain himself, one suspects, would be laughing his ass off.

Sign of the Times

Free Ride just received a review in The New York Times, and it’s a two-page rave. Naturally, I’m thrilled. Apart from any commercial considerations, it’s great to have the respect of other writers – especially a prominent law professor. And I think it shows how public opinion on these issues is finally starting to change.

We are now having a vigorous debate over how to enforce existing laws online, as well we should, even if the quality of that debate occasionally involves asking the opinion of a teenage Canadian pop star who can’t quite name all of the continents. But people have started to realize that amateur media won’t replace the work of professional creators. They’re even talking about the debate as one between Silicon Valley giants and Hollywood media companies – and starting to notice that online activists have a financial bias of their own.

Have a great Thanksgiving.

Thoughts on SOPA

I attempted to take some of the hysteria out of the debate here. Bottom line: This is not a conflict between content creators and the public, but rather one between creators and the companies that support them on one hand and those that make money from their work without paying them on the other.



How To Buy An Op-Ed

Step One: Get a key position at a think tank.

Step Two: Adjust the focus of the think tank.

Step Three: Support Dubious Viewpoints.

Step Four: Have Paid “Fellows” Write Op-Eds.

Step Five: Profit!


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?

What Now?

As I do interviews to promote my book, one of the questions I’m always asked is, “Where do we go from here?” Sometimes this is phrased more along the lines of, “OK, if you’re so smart, what can we do about this?”

Here’s the solution!

Well, maybe not. I think I have some interesting ideas about “how the culture business can fight back,” but I’m the first to admit that we’re just starting to make some serious decisions about how to balance the rights of various people in the online world. So far, the discussion has been pretty lame – entertainment conglomerates complain about “digital theft” while technology companies promote “free speech.” That’s not much of a conversation: I’d rather call copyright infringement by its proper name, and it’s important to realize that “the Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression,” in the words of a U.S. Supreme Court decision. On this level, what I really want to do is ask some important questions that have become lost in a lobbying struggle between creators and Big Search.

In a Salon interview that ran yesterday, I talk a bit about how we can balance the interests of various parties online. Many of the comments attack me for promoting the interests of big media companies, but I don’t see where I did that. I am defending the rights of creators to their work, which could favor companies or individuals, but that’s a very different thing. Besides, these days, the power has shifted to Silicon Valley. In 2010, Amazon spent more money to lobby Congress than the MPAA. The rallying cry of a free and open Internet has become a call to Leave No Venture Capitalist Behind. We deserve better.

In the last chapter of Free Ride – excerpted here in Billboard – I talk about how we might apply smart, light regulation to the Internet in a way that protects the rights of creators and consumers alike. We need to make sure the Internet will remain an open venue for free expression. At the same time, we need to impose some limits to protect the free speech rights of professional creators. As I say in the book, we should not dismantle the 300-year-old tradition of a market for creative work so the Internet can continue to work the way it did in 1995.


Google spreads Astroturf as far as the eye can see. Check it out.

Addition: The Register covers the opening of Google’s new center for Google Studies – a €4.5 million academic institution in Berlin. Google says “it is an independent academic body.” And if you believe that, the company has a bridge to sell you in Bavaria.

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.”


Buy My Book


Hodges Figgis bookstore
6:30pm, January 24
Dublin, Ireland

Digital Biscuit conference
11:15am, January 25
With Bill Whelan
Dublin, Ireland

Institute of International and European Affairs
1pm, January 25
Dublin, Ireland


Keynote speech,
OnCopyright 2012

Keynote speech,
Canadian Music Week

Keynote speech,
Brussels Creators Conference

Television interview,
"The Agenda with Steve Paikin"

Keynote interview,
World Copyright Summit

Speech on journalism,
USC's Annenberg School