Interview with Robert Levine on the current free ride culture on the internet

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14 October, 2011

Future of Copyright interviewed Robert Levine, author of the book “Free ride: how the internet is destroying the culture business and how the culture business can fight back”. According to Robert Levine, a large group of consumers have grown accustomed to enjoying creative content through the internet, without paying any form of compensation to the creators of these movies, books and music. Large companies like Google and YouTube profit considerably from this free culture movement. However, they do not contribute to it either, Levine argues. 

How do you think the future will look, if the free ride culture continues?

Grim. What we are moving towards these days is that people do not want to pay for music or movies at all. However, when no artist gets paid, how should we deal with that? With no return on creative works, investment budgets will start to dry up. That will have its effect on the variety and quality of new work, because it is very hard to make a movie or a book cheaply, especially when there is a lot of research involved. When the funding becomes less and less, books and movies will not display the same level of ambition, quality and diversity as before.

Nowadays, we hear people say that concepts like Creative Commons, people working for free and donations will solve the problem, but a lot of those ideas derive from the mindset of ‘profiting without contributing’. Furthermore, if an artist works for free, he also drags down other peoples’ salary. For instance, the band Radiohead gave away their album for free, but in that way they made it harder for other bands to charge their fans for their music and make a living. Even for consumers, I think, at some point these free offerings won’t be as attractive as they are nowadays, since they will get used to the idea of content being offered for free and the ‘new’ element of free goods will wear.

In case this current ‘free ride’ situation will continue, record companies and the entertainment industry will not be able to make as many investments as they did ten years ago and this will lead to cultural impoverishment. I think there will always be people creating new things, but in the long run, many artists might lack the resources to do a good job and will not be heard, which would be a shame. 

What are you’re ideas about current new business models online, such as freemium models (Spotify) and pay walls (newspapers)? Are they filling the gap between the free ride culture and the culture business? Do you think they will last and succeed?

I think a version of these business models will succeed, although I don’t exactly know what kind of version. The idea of paying one fee and listening to everything you want is a very powerful idea and instrument. The same thing happens with cable TV in the US: people pay one fee and get to watch hundreds of channels on cable TV in return. I think a version of this will work for music too. The question is however: does Spotify compensate creators enough to make it work? We have to see about that. So far, Spotify does not return much money in licensing fees and tends to compensate recording artists a lot better than songwriters, but this could change in the future. In case people seem to like Spotify and are willing to pay more for the streaming service, Spotify could then maybe raise licensing fees and compensate creators more.

The most important asset of ‘freemium’ business is the fact that it is partially a paid system. Once you have that, you can negotiate about prices, licensing fees and the partition thereof. The thing we have to be most afraid of is this idea that you don’t need to pay for copyright protected content and all creative content online is free.

If online piracy and free content are killing our culture, should authorities intervene to prevent this? And if so, how can they prevent this?

Yes, authorities have to intervene, although the legal basis for intervention varies around the world.  It’s upsetting and ridiculous when people say no law exists online and the government has no authority in cyberspace. Authorities can intervene by monitoring the internet to a certain extent and by more traditional means, such as collecting taxes, for instance.

It is important to always have some kind of limit to all things in the real world, defined through laws and enforcement by authorities. I think this should also be the case online. The offline world shows very good examples. For instance, there is the freedom of speech, but every country sets limit to this. Limits should also count online and authorities should decide what these limits are and how they can optimally enforce them, without ruining the internet.

In the battle against copyright infringement of music and movies, do you see a role for ISP’s?

I’d like to see that. There are different kinds of intermediaries and they should take some responsibility and some kind of action. ISP’s are the most obvious intermediaries to approach. They really need to act against illegal activities online, although it is open for debate what kind of action this should be.

What do you think about graduate response systems, such as the punitive ‘Three Strikes Act’ in France and the ‘Six Strikes’ in the United States that maintains a more educational approach?

I don’t really think it’s relevant to make a distinction between punitive and educational approaches, as I see them both as warning processes. I think warning is good for consumers that infringe rights, to let them know that what they are doing is wrong. However, the real hard-core pirates won’t get caught, because they will always find a way around these systems.

We should focus on young people. It’s important to get this generation into the habit of paying for (protected) content. Parents and artists should play a lead role in creating this habit. I think disconnecting (a small amount of) people from the internet because of their illegal activities is not productive. However, commercial pirates such as Limewire should be punished and shut down, because we see this pays off in terms of reducing the number of online infringements.

The US has a different policy to battle copyright infringement compared to European countries. However, online copyright infringement happens across state borders. Should there be some sort of global approach against piracy?

Yes and no. Off course it would be great to create a global strategy where there would be one unified approach to fight piracy. However, we see that copyright enforcement can only work through treaties. Unfortunately, not every country will sign a global treaty and – more importantly – will adopt and adhere to these rules. A good example of this is ACTA.

It is not so hard for the EU to create a unified approach to fight piracy. But if countries like China and Russia are to be involved, it will be quite complicated to get these countries to abide by this treaty, as their level of law enforcement and transparency varies. Lastly, there are some security issues that go along with the fact that there are no boundaries online. Therefore, a certain level of security enforcement is necessary to regulate the internet.

Nathalie Falot

Senior Legal Consultant

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