A copyright proponent's wish for the presidential debate (Q&A)

Robert Levine wrote a book critical of what he sees are attempts to weaken the ability of creators to earn a living. He wishes Washington could engage in serious debate about Web piracy. That's unlikely, he thinks.

Robert Levine, author of 'Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business.' Greg Sandoval/CNET

The goal of technology companies is to stuff their pockets with money, said Robert Levine.

"Venture capitalists may -- I haven't confirmed this -- also want to make money," Levine told snickering audience members, who were mostly from book publishing, during a panel discussion last March at the On Copyright conference.

What Levine wants to know is why everyone in tech gets upset when musicians and filmmakers try to earn a living. Levine has become a notable proponent of copyright and a defender of protecting the work of artists.

Since the publication last year of his book, "Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business," which is now out on paperback, Levine has become the creative sector's answer to Mike Masnick, the noted publisher of Techdirt and a prominent critic of the entertainment industry and current copyright laws.

U.S. President Barack Obama has previously promised to fight online piracy and protect the country's intellectual property. With the president and Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, scheduled to debate in just a few hours, Levine shared some of what he wishes the candidates would discuss if the topic of Internet piracy ever comes up.

Q: This president has said he wanted to support copyright and do battle against piracy. Has he made good?
Levine: The answer would have to be a little bit of both. I'm a business and culture journalist, so my insight into politics isn't perfect, but I know there's enormous pressure on Obama from both sides. On the one hand, you have the entertainment business, which is a traditional Democrat power base and donates accordingly. On the other hand, you have Google and other technology companies, which define themselves as progressive -- wrongly, since they seem to dislike regulation as much as Romney -- that are spending an enormous amount of money as well.

Everyone is in favor of a free and open Internet, but I'm not sure what that means. (Generally, when used in D.C., it seems to mean an Internet that's regulated to favor Google.) Some of the issues involved in this are obviously extremely important, and I'm not making light of them, but I think it's important to talk about them with some specificity.

How do you rate President Obama's action or inaction during the SOPA and PIPA debate?
Levine: I think he did what was practical -- withdrew his support once it was clear the law wouldn't go through. Look, SOPA and PIPA had huge flaws. I think they also had some interesting ideas, and that they could have been the starting point for a productive discussion. Certainly, once the amendment process got underway, things seemed headed in that direction. Why didn't this happen?

I think there's plenty of blame to go around. On one hand, you have an entertainment business that tried to get the bills through using a process that wasn't open enough. It was shameful. On the other, you had technology lobbyists who misrepresented what was in the bills -- which was also dishonest. And the fact that the bills were so long and complicated meant they were open to misinterpretation. I'm not sure Obama could have made much of a difference.

If the candidates were to speak about copyright, what would you want them to say about Web piracy?
Levine: I'd want them to say something nuanced, but I don't think that will happen. Some politicians will tell you that any time you download an MP3 without paying for it, this is theft and you're a horrible, immoral person. Others will tell you that this is somehow really innovative. Some say that every download represents a lost sale; others say file-sharing fuels music purchases. All of these ideas are really pretty silly. It's a lot more complex than that.

I don't know very many people seriously involved in these issues who think that piracy doesn't hurt sales -- they just argue over how much. I think we need to establish boundaries that can limit commercial-scale piracy like what you see on the Pirate Bay. But I don't think that means we ought to be suing individuals -- it's just not effective. I'd love to see politicians talk about this issue like serious adults.

But based on the past few months, that might be a lot to ask during this election.

Harvey Weinstein, one of the best known indie film producers in Hollywood, went off the other day about piracy. He said piracy is hurting the industry. Do you think the film sector is heading the same way as music?
Levine: To some extent. If you look at box office receipts, as technology lobbyists do, the film business looks pretty healthy. But that's not the movie business -- it represents about a quarter of the revenue for the average film. (The percentages vary, but you get the idea.) If you look at the DVD business, which is really important, it's just dying. Digital rentals are doing OK, but sales aren't. So the film business has a problem. That said, I think it will fare better than music, since it has more digital retailers to do business with. The labels only have iTunes, and now Spotify -- the studios have iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix, plus the UltraViolet initiative and other ideas that they're still working on. That will help them enormously.

You have become a spokesman for copyright owners, certainly as much as Mike Masnick is a spokesman for the copy left. When everyone seems to be dumping on copyright owners, why do you defend them?
Levine: I would defend the idea of copyright, if only because the vast majority of evidence suggests that, first, it's helpful, and, second, many of the attacks on it come from the self-interest of technology companies. When I talk about the idea of copyright I mean the idea, not the current laws -- I think copyright lasts too long and covers too much, but I do think artists have a natural right to their work. That's a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not something that comes from the MPAA.

Obviously, there's a world of difference between the idea of copyright and the behavior of media companies. Media companies are motivated by their desire to make money -- same as technology companies, same as all companies -- but copyright gives creators a way to negotiate with them. The contracts that result often leave much to be desired, but that has more to do with an imbalance of negotiating power than copyright. If creators didn't have any rights to their work, they'd have nothing to sell -- a far worse situation than what we're seeing now.

 

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