Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back Hardcover – Oct 25 2011
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Praise for Free Ride
“A book that should change the debate about the future of culture….With this stylishly written and well-reported manifesto, Levine has become a leading voice on one side of our most hotly contested debate involving law and technology.”
—Jeffrey Rosen, The New York Times Book Review
"Turbo-reported....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."
"[A] smart, caustic tour of the modern culture industry."
“Brilliant…A crash course in the existential problems facing the [media].”
—Richard Morrison, The Times
“The most convincing defense of the current predicament of the creative industries that I have read.”
—James Crabtree, Financial Times
“With penetrating analysis and insight, Levine, a former executive editor of Billboard magazine, dissects the current economic climate of the struggling American media companies caught in the powerful fiscal grip of the digital industry…. This incisive book is a start at an informed dialogue.”
“Can the culture business survive the digital age? That’s the burning question Robert Levine poses in his provocative new book. And his answer is one that will get your blood boiling. Rich with revealing stories and telling tales, Free Ride makes a lucid case that information is actually expensive – and that it’s only the big technology firms profiting most from the work of others that demand information be free.”
—Gary Rivlin, author of Broke, USA
“One of the great issues of the digital age is how people who create content will be able to make a living. Robert Levine’s timely and well-researched book provides a valuable look at how copyright protection was lost on the internet and offers suggestions about how it could be restored.”
—Walter Isaacson, President/CEO of the Aspen Institute and author of Benjamin Franklin
“This book thoroughly documents a wide-spread outbreak of cyber amnesia. Despite libertarian delusions, industries often get Free Rides, especially in their early days, but they eventually give back. Taxpayers build roads, then get hired to build cars. The Internet gives back a lot in exchange for its Free Ride, but one thing it defiantly isn’t giving back is a way for enough people to make a living. No matter how amusing or addictive the Internet becomes, its foundation will crumble unless it starts returning the favors it was given and still depends on.”
—Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget
“Free Ride is a brilliantly written book that exposes the dark side of the Internet. A must read for anyone interested in the horrific undermining of our intellectual culture.”
—Edward Jay Epstein, author of The Big Picture: Money and Power in Hollywood
“Robert Levine deftly dissects the self-serving Orwellian freedom-speak being served up by Silicon Valley’s digital new lords as they amass fortunes devaluing the work of artists, journalists and other old-fashioned ‘content creators.’ Free Ride begs us to remove our blinders and take a hard look down a cultural dead-end road.”
—Fred Goodman, author of Fortune’s Fool: Edgar Bronfman Jr., Warner Music, and an Industry in Crisis
“Without being a Luddite, Levine makes the phony digital media gurus of our day seem as simple-minded as their slogans.”
—Ron Rosenbaum, author of How the End Begins and Explaining Hitler
About the Author
ROBERT LEVINE was most recently executive editor of Billboard magazine. His articles on technology, business, and culture have appeared in the New York Times, Fortune, Condé Nast Portfolio, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, and Travel & Leisure. He lives in New York.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
Whatever I might have said, you shall not see it as a reason not to buy and read this book! I really appreciated it, if only for the fact it gave me the opportunity to debate with myself on mister Levine's arguments!
The author explains how our information economy is headed for a place where information
isn't worth anything in an environment of piracy.
He approaches the subject in a fair way balancing his comments between user and producer.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This is why I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It's a fascinating history of the rise of digital piracy as it affected (and affects) the major "content" businesses (Music, Newspapers, Publishing, Television, and Film), and particularly the divide between the digital technology companies (such as Google) and the content industries. Quite often, I finished a chapter of the book much more sympathetic to these businesses than I had been before, particularly when Levine really delves into the economics of the "content" businesses and the piracy affecting them. While I don't entirely agree with him (at times, I think he's a little too wed to the idea of keeping the content businesses large and stable), I strongly recommend this book to any interested in these topics.
Levine focuses on those five main "content" businesses, but the real heart of the book (the most researched and detailed, including Levine's proposal for dealing with piracy) lie in the sections about the Music Industry. He goes into great detail about how digital piracy unfolded on the industry in the form of Napster, File-Sharing, and Digital Lockers, and how the Music Industry reacted to these changes (and the proliferation of digital technology plus the web). Particularly interesting to me was his writings on the economics of the Music Industry and each method of distributing music (such as CD Albums versus iTunes singles), as well as the details about the rise and fall of Napster in the late 1990s.
It is from the Music Industry that Levine also draws his proposal for resolving the issue of getting rights-holders paid for the use of their content on the web: "Blanket Licenses", or the right for people to use all the music they want as long as they pay for the license to an organization that then distributes the revenue (or if they subscribe to services that do this). He points out that this is already a system in place for paying songwriters and music publishing, and that several European telecoms/Internet Service Providers (such as TDC in the Netherlands). There is increasing support for it in continental Europe, although the US music industry continues to be wary.
This is not to dismiss the rest of the book. Levine also delves quite well into how e-books are changing the Publishing Industry, mostly in the context of the conflict between tech companies that want to sell book-reading devices using books as a "loss leader", and the actual publishing companies that are afraid that this "loss leading" will destroy any other retailers who can't afford to take a loss on book sales to sell physical readers. He makes a very convincing argument that it was foolish for newspapers to put all their articles online for free, instead of reserving most of them for subscribers (particularly the more profitable "print" subscribers that usually account for more than 90% of a newspaper's revenue). Levine points out that Online Video is a major threat to cable television, the heart of the modern television business (their reaction is "TV Everywhere", allowing anyone with a cable subscription to watch television shows and movies on any devices they own). And quite frequently, Levine points out the divide between the technology companies that have benefited from a "free web" that permits piracy (such as Youtube getting popular on the back of pirated video content that users post), and the content providers hurt by this. A great deal of his anger is particularly reserved for Google, which has been a major player in dampening efforts to strengthen copyright enforcement online.
That is not to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Levine on these issues. His chapters on the newspaper business are very convincing, and I'm much more sympathetic to the television and music businesses after reading this book. Nonetheless, I think Levine has a bias towards high-priced, professional content output, such as high-priced shows on cable subscriptions. There are several points in the book where he's dismissive towards amateurs and "hobbyists", and I get the impression that he would gladly make the trade-off of higher cable prices for higher-priced (and presumably better) content such as "Mad Men". That's a fair opinion, but it's like complaints about how the quality of air travel degraded after de-regulation allowed cheaper airfare prices in the US: quality was lost, but far more people had access and the ability to enter the market. It's important not to get too wedded to the present state of the "content" market, fears about a "twenty-first century economy with a seventeeth-century content business" aside.
Despite some of my disagreements with Levine, I DO wholeheartedly recommend that you read this book. It's an excellent piece, both readable and well-supported, from a perspective that tends to be dismissed as entirely self-serving and "luddite" in the debates over digital piracy.
The problem with this, if I am in fact correct in that impression, is that the older generations already understand how and why old ideas relating to media distribution work. This book attempts to dispel some of the present-day notions relating to information distribution in the Internet Age, which means that it would be most purposeful if it were read by the Internet Generation; they're the ones who might find the ideas in this book eye-opening. Pre-Generation X readers will probably find little to surprise them here.
However, if the reviews here on Amazon are any indication, it seems that the Internet Generation is reading this book after all, which is probably a good thing. All of this being said, then, let me try to summarize the intent of this book. Quite simply, Free Ride is a call to return to common-sense thinking, flying directly in the face of all the assumptions that the market seems to have made about media on the Internet. People who spend hours of their spare time on the Internet every day are NOT likely to agree with the core points of this book, but if they keep an open mind when reading, they may just come to a better understanding of how "the other side" in the battle for new media thinks.
Levine thoroughly picks apart one of the key fallacies of the Internet Age: the idea that "information wants to be free." Levine observes--and quite rightly so--that proponents of the Information Age have made a critical oversight by wholeheartedly adopting two incompatible tenets: First, they have settled on the idea that information is the most valuable commodity in the world today. Though it lacks physical substance, information, the digerati will tell you, is worth more than physical goods such as wheat, steel, timber, and so on. Secondly, they have embraced the idea that "free is the new black." That is to say, all this information should be given away for free.
Anyone with any ounce of sense should immediately recognize that these ideas are incompatible with each other. If the Information Age is trading in information, what good does it do to give away your only valuable commodity for free? The idea that a viable business model can be based on giving information away for free is only adopted by companies such as Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, and so on--companies which make most or all of their revenue on advertising. In doing this, these companies have utterly devalued the cultural production of "real art" by making music, text, and visual media freely available to the world, but making money by cluttering that media with advertising. In other words, adertising is regarding as the only "information" of any value; everything else--the actual content--becomes worthless filler. This is an atrocious inversion of cultural values, and Levine's objection to the devaluation of culture is palpable.
Free Ride follows a familiar formula: Like most books of this type, it spends most of its pages laying out its case, stating facts to back up its claims. The book's subtitle speaks to "How the culture business can fight back," but perhaps predictably, the actual sections advocating some type of action are compressed toward the end of the book, almost as an afterthought. This part is where things get really interesting, however, as Levine's ideas about solutions are positively antithetical to the current Internet media model. If new media geeks find Levine's premises doubtful, they'll absolutely howl when they read Levine advocating government intervention in how the Internet spreads information. Writing about the Internet in Europe, Levine notes that government legislation is effective in controlling what can be accessed on the Internet: Levine relates amusing anecdotes of how large Internet portals trotted out their usual lines about how regulating the Internet restricts freedom of expression and "the Internet can't be regulated anyway," until European governments passed federal laws requiring Internet sites to restrict traffic to certain countries, at which point the Internet portals magically discovered that they can regulate the Internet after all. Lest we forget, let me remind you that Google, Yahoo!, MSN, and similar online portals make nearly all of their revenue on advertising. They have no interest in providing quality information to readers; like any other large media organization, they simply want to provide something simple and entertaining so they can get people to keep viewing their ads. That's not a sound basis for the generation of meaningful cultural media.
Levine is no fool; he knows fully well that most people won't pay for something they can get for free, and he's not afraid to advocate strong controls on the Internet to cut down on piracy. People who lack any understanding of politics and companies which make money from advertising on the Internet are always quick to provide a knee-jerk reaction to such ideas, insisting that their rights and freedoms are being violated, but Levine's obviously smart enough to see through this empty rhetoric. This takes me back to my original point: If people of the older generations read Free Ride, they'll fully understand how and why the government regulates the flow of information; their only question will be why such hasn't been done sooner. The under-30 crowd, however, will quickly take to reddit or Facebook and insist that Levine is one of the most evil and dangerous writers of our current era. None of the ideas in this book are new; the book is obviously biased toward implementing stronger controls on the Internet, and while this position is not "wrong," Internet people are so brainwashed into thinking that old media-distribution channels are "obsolete" that I doubt even a book full of well-researched and compellingly-presented information such as this could convince them. Don't get me wrong; I don't like the idea of policing the Internet myself, but given how utterly rampant piracy is, Levine's really just telling us all what we should already know: A game in which everything is given away for free can only last for so long before it all collapses. If anyone doubts this idea in the slightest, they may find food for thought in Free Ride, but as a resource for new ideas or non-partisan perspectives on a hotly-debated topic, Free Ride doesn't really have much to offer. Worth a read for anyone who's unfamiliar with the issue or who wants to read a rebuttal to the "information wants to be free" sheep, but if you're thoroughly convinced that your e-business of downloading torrents is going to make you a millionaire, you should probably just put your headphones back on and go on pretending that everyone believes what you do.
As an aside, I'd be interested to know what Mr.Levine thinks about SOPA. In any case, I recommend Free Ride.
One of the things that surprised me in this book was that what I'd once seen as a battle between a rebel alliance of copyleft freedom fighters on one side and monopolistic capitalist dinosaurs on the other was substantially more complicated.
The author explores and documents why technology and communications companies (the finger is generally pointed at Google) strongly advocate against enforcement of copyright (that is that they agree in general that creators should be compensated, but lobby against enforcement of copyright law). I found author was unnecessarily critical of Lessig in particular (I don't think Lessig is pushing any barrow other than his own even though groups he is involved with have been blessed by Google's beneficence), but that the author's general argument about why certain big companies were willing to support groups like the EFF and other anti-copyright enforcement advocacy groups does seem to hold water.
It boils down to reasoning coming along the lines of "the killer app for the Internet is piracy" and that many technology companies would incur a substantial cost if they had to strictly police copyright infringement. That it can be reasonably argued that services like the old Napster, BitTorrent, and File Locker sites indirectly drive profit in the technology industry whilst reducing profit in the "creation of culture" industry (hence the use of parasite in the book's title). The author isn't claiming that techn companies make money directly out of piracy itself, but that stamping down on infringement would certainly be a substantial operating expense and there is no benefit in one ISP coming down on users for downloading stuff when they'll just move to another ISP that has a more laid back attitude.
The book explores the "find a different business model" arguments that anti-copyright enforcement advocacy groups suggest that in theory would allow content creators to make a dime whilst giving away that content for free. However it turns out that if there is a different business model, it doesn't work except in a few edge cases. The author suggests that some sort of blanket license fee might work (such as is being trialed at certain ISPs in Denmark). The author also admits that a substantial number of people still believe that creators can make a good income giving their product away for free (and that the ones that can't simply aren't being creative enough and should be a bit more inventive) and that as long as that belief persists, consumers who are used to "free" will feel little compunction topay directly for digital content.
However I was frustrated during the first few chapters of the book; I felt like the author was venting against the internet, pirates, and YouTube. The Internet has provided the best distribution method (for consumers) to date for multimedia, and pirates discovered this far faster than the content industry. If Netflix & Hulu preceded mainstream file sharing I wonder how many movies would be downloaded against copyright?
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