Saturday 7 July 2012

Robert Levine argues against the culture of 'free'

I attended the afternoon session of IndieCon yesterday, the new conference set up by the UK's independent label's trade group AIM, which proved to be a most interesting affair, not least as the guest speaker was Robert Levine, the journalist and author of 'Free Ride' which the New York Times described as 'a book that should change the debate about the future of culture. 

Alison Wenham
The session was kicked off by AIM CEO Alison Wenham, who made a forthright criticism of the proposed purchase of EMI's recorded music division by Universal Music Group. Its no secret that another AIM director, Martin Mills from the Beggars Banquet label has been a very public opponent of the merger which would give UMG something approaching a 50% market share of the global recorded music business, and Alison warned delegates that with a combined UMG/EMI twice the size of its nearest rival SonyBMG and four times as large as its next rival Warners - and dwarfing even the largest independent label,  the issue would become one of permission - would UMG let a new entrant into the music market place - as effectively without UMG no-one would be able to create a successful digital business - you would need UMG's permission - and they would have to give it. 

Robert Levine
Robert was interviewed by Ben Watt, one half of alternative pop duo Everything But The Girl, BBC 6Music DJ, author and founder of his own label, Buzzin' Fly. Robert adds an interesting and clear voice to the debate about the future of copyright and to be clear whilst critical of some aspects of copyright, overall he supports the regulatory framework and the right of authors to be paid - if they want to be paid. Robert has worked with the content industry for many years, writing for Rolling Stone, Billboard and Vanity Fair, and is of course an author in his own right and he explained his own anger when one of his books appeared online even before it was released in the USA. Levine explained that whilst one of the contracts he had signed with book publisher might had provided a relatively small royalty - it did mean his time writing was funded and most importantly it was his own choice - he chose to enter into a contract with Random House - he did NOT choose to have his book being posted online without either his permission - or payment - saying that content uploaded and swapped via MegaUpload or Grooveshark often involved no contract, no permission and no choice for the author. 

Ben asked Robert about what he thought was wrong (and right) with copyright and Levine opined that he felt copyright clearly had problems - but he was reasonably optimistic for the future of music as new services such as Spotify developed. I have to say I am less sure as I am not convinced Spotify helps or realistically remunerates artistes, but Alison Wenham had also earlier talked up Spotify as an improving source of revenues for the business and clearly some (though not all) of the independent labels are now seeing streaming in a more positive light. 

Levine explained his view on copyright under three headings - length, breadth and depth. By length he means the copyright term - and Levine thinks copyright terns are far too long. That was simple. By breadth he means what is covered by copyright - and he said he felt reasonable comfortable with the current position (I paraphrase) BUT that certain areas needed re-examination - examples being parody here in the UK and music sampling. By depth Robert means what should and could be enforced where he noted that an increasingly polarised 'tug of war' was going on between content owners and creators on one part, and those in favour of a free and 'open rights' internet on the other side. 

Unsurprisingly Google and it's YouTube subsidiary were never far from the discussion, not least as Robert is clearly of the opinion that free is not always good. Levine noted Google's immense power and influence - and noted the influence he clearly felt the internet giant had on the UK's government, not least in the run up to the Hargreaves Review of IP and its ongoing influence in the aggressive campaigns to scrap SOPA, PIPA and ACTA, and any reforms the USA's Digital Millennium Copyright Act. On the latter Levine, asked the question of whether the DCMA really provided a level playing field for commerce, and a 'fair deal' between content owners and technology companies such as Google, YouTube as ISPs and noted that really what YouTube in particular had done was position itself as a new 'gatekeeper' for content going online, legal or otherwise. Last August we had previously noted Robert's views here.

Ben Watt
When asked if Google was now 'above the law' and was now, in effect, a sovereign state, Levine answered that Google was usually anti-regulation, and would ignore regulators such as the EU, unless regulation helped its own business model. Robert then gave the rather more chilling example of comparing Google to Wall Street, saying that by telling regulators that regulating the web would be 'too complex' they were repeating the mantras earlier used by bankers to push for deregulation in what ended up as catastrophic business models. Well catastrophic for many we now know, although not necessarily catastrophic for banking really!

Levine was surprisingly scathing about Creative Commons, firstly noting that it was a 'sloppy' contract based system and then noting that it's board members include the music business development manager at YouTube, and Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin's mother in law Esther Wojcicki, who is a teacher of journalism as well as being the Creative Commons Vice Chair - you learn something new every day! The board also features Caterina Fake,the co-founder of Flickr and Jimmy Wales who founded Wikipedia, although I must say the board also includes a number of academics, lawyers and technology experts - as well as film maker Davis Guggenheim and Annette Thomas the CEO of MacMillan Publishing. Creative Commons - a Google sponsored initiative? Food for thought. 

The session ended with a short Question and Answer session with Robert briefly saying that he felt that French Hadopi system probably had made some effect on illegal downloading in France but really he would prefer to see efforts aimed at the likes of MegaUpload and Limewire, and that one way to stop companies such as the credit card payment giants Visa and MasterCard and companies such as Microsoft advertising on infringing sites or processing their ill gotten gains was to name and shame them! Applause for all and then off for the 'chips and beer' party. Good chips too. 

I had missed an earlier and much talked about session by King Crimson's Robert Fripp who I am told had given an personal and impassioned account of the horrors of dealing with and (not) being paid by major labels during his long and successful career - but I am reliably told this (and the interview with Robert) will be posted up on the AIM website within the week which can be found at 

No comments: