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Robert Levine in Interview

‘By making it essentially optional to pay for content, piracy has set the price of digital goods at zero. The result is a race to the bottom, and the inevitable response of media companies has been cuts- first in staff, then in ambition, and finally in quality’- So says pro-copyright activist and author Robert Levine in what is becoming an essential guide for publishers and authors, Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How it Can Fight Back. Described by the New York Times Book Review as “a book that should change the debate about the future of culture”, Levine’s analysis has sparked both controversy and admiration from both sides of the copyright divide. Are online companies devaluing culture by stripping away the creator’s rights or are companies such as Google and Amazon simply more creatively nimble where others are not? Speaking at several key events in Dublin last Friday, including a session for the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland’s “Digital Biscuit” conference, Levine spoke to Publishing Ireland about copyright, censorship and how the publishing industry can no longer afford to be ‘genteel’ when it comes to is relationship with technology companies.

PI:        You often compare record companies to publishers in terms of how products and distribution are seen. Am I right though in saying that one is, let us say, a little more genteel than the other?

 RL           ‘The publishing business has been pretty genteel. The music business is not genteel. It’s a different tradition. The publishing business’s gentility served them very well…until it didn’t.  Now they have to be more aggressive. ‘

PI         Having been the executive editor for Billboard Magazine, as well as being an editor for Wired, would it be fair to say that you are not the ‘anti-internet’ guy, when it comes to culture on the web?

 RL        No, of course not. I love being able to get stuff on iTunes, which is a much more efficient way to get stuff and efficiency is great. But I also think there’s more to life- or there should be. Efficiency is great but are we overvaluing efficiency?

PI         There has been much debate about copyright and whether or not it should be reformed. How do you respond to those who criticise elements such as the 90-year rule, which maintains an author’s copyright for 90 years after death?

RL        Look…no one needs 90 years of copyright, right? The copyright sceptics have a good point there. Is a violation of people’s right to free speech the way they are saying it is? I don’t think it’s a violation of anyone’s right to free speech to have copyright for 90 years, I just think it’s dumb. It doesn’t do anyone any good and it causes hassle and inconvenience. I don’t think it’s killing our culture the way people say it is. People get a bit hysterical I think- on both sides. One of the things I joke about is the fact that I’m very proud of having written a book on copyright without really using the word ‘theft’.  I don’t think that it’s morally very different, but a word like ‘theft’ closes a conversation that you want to have. I think ‘theft’ is like ‘censorship’. Censorship is when the government stops you from publishing something. That’s not what this is. It stops you from thinking critically about something you ought to think critically about. People ought to think about this stuff.

PI         Free Speech is at best a thorny issue- particularly when it becomes confused with censorship. Take the example cited in your book of how Yahoo! was ordered to bar French Internet shoppers from sites selling Nazi memorabilia. Was that violation of free speech or a necessary condemnation?

RL        Remember when Galliano came out with this tirade? He went to jail! Now I’m Jewish so I thought what he did was offensive and stupid, but the idea that he went to jail seems absolutely foolish. Also, if you are going to do something that stupid you are going to suffer from the fact that everybody thinks you’re an idiot. The second this is that if you make a crime out of saying things like this then you run the risk all of a sudden of people who will start thinking that they’re important.  Suddenly people will think that what this guy said must be really important. That’s not necessarily a good thing, especially when the preponderance of evidence suggests that he was just a jackass. It wasn’t something that was like a political statement. He just can’t hold his liquor.

As for the French, I wouldn’t presume to tell them what to do- I mean they’re French. Part of their charm is that no one tells them what to do! Being weird and crazy is sort of their thing! No but seriously, the French don’t have the first amendment like the US but I don’t think that French society suffers because of it. When I look about their political culture, I don’t think that it’s really inhibited by the fact that you can’t go around saying really racist stuff all the time. I think it’s a weird law and find it foolish but you know, if they want to regulate online companies in a different way then who are we to tell them they can’t.

PI         And Google’s Standard?

RL        I find it weird that we presume to tell them to follow other laws. It’s actually kind of creepy in a way. There is clearly a sense that Google wants to push a different standard of free speech on Europe. Maybe their standard’s better. I don’t really care but we ought to be very careful about the fact that it’s coming from a company. Google sponsored this Human Rights conference. The whole idea that a company would sponsor a human rights conference…I mean…what the hell? I think a lot of what they want I would support and some of it I wouldn’t but we should be a little suspicious about a company having a human rights conference. Who’s going? Who’s paying and how much? People should be asking those questions and they may come up with completely different answers to me and that’s fine. What I find upsetting though is that people are not asking those questions.

PI         Why do you think that is?

RL        Journalists have less time than they used to. I think journalists are always a little in love with something new and there is a reluctance to question the ‘narrative’. Google is a great new thing. It’s hard to question an established narrative. Narratives are so important and people don’t realise sometimes how hard it is to deviate from it. So many people say to me ‘Oh well you would favour censorship’, but I wouldn’t. I don’t think that shutting down the Pirate Bay is censorship. It’s more of a civil thing. They are violating people’s rights – I mean, aside from Julian Assange most people think that Sweden has a pretty good system. They are not on trial in Qatar. It’s a famously progressive country. There is a sense that this is so wrong because people get a basic frame for something and they don’t really question it as much. Once you have that frame, the facts fit the frame.

PI         Speaking of outlets like the Pirate Bay, how do you respond to those who put forward the argument that record companies have long been known for being every bit as domineering as the likes of Google and Amazon in terms of monopolising the market to the detriment of artists who are often exploited?

RL        People say that record companies and film studios are very corrupt and so therefore copyright’s bad. I’m not sure though that these two things have anything to do with each other. Record companies are bad but what does that have to do with copyright? Record companies are entities that hold your contract. You might sign a good contract; you might sign a bad contract. You might sign a good contract and they cheat you, in which case you have to sue them. In civil society if you have an agreement between two parties and get cheated you have the right to redress in a court of law. I don’t know it it’s the best solution or system but it’s got to be better than clubbing each other to death. I mean, there were deals made when people couldn’t read and the deals were fucked up- but that was in the 50’s. Now you have your garden variety bad deals but they made the deals! I’m not saying that it’s not wrong. I’m just saying that it doesn’t have much to do with copyright. I just feel that some people on the anti-copyright side have a specific point of view that maybe a distraction from the real issue. If you believe that an artist has the right to make a decision you have to accept the fact that they might make a bad decision.

PI         You underline, throughout Free Ride, that your own contract with Random House was a carefully considered one and that the idea of risk was central to why you made the decision to accept a mere four dollars a book in royalties. What is the practical use of having a publisher now that self-publishing has soared in terms of author success?

RL        I have a publishing contract. There are two possible reasons why I did it the way I did it. Either I’m a complete idiot or (there’s another option!) they gave me something that I couldn’t get anywhere else. The distribution of a printed book is not that hard. People act like distributing shit is the height of our society. It’s not. You do need scale but warehouses and trucks…it’s not rocket science! It’s not so difficult to press up CD’s and put them in stores. Rough Trade was doing this in the 70’s you know what I mean? Professional editing is important also but sadly I would argue that publishing editing is not what it was ten years ago. You could also hire an editor. God knows the world is littered with out of work editors! So why did I take that four dollars a book? The reason is that what these people do is they aggregate risk. Let’s say one out of every eight books earns back ten times its investment…..if you publish 80 books- each of which makes ten times their investment you’ve got a good business! If you are a writer and you have a one in eight chance then that’s a gamble. You then read a lot of articles about people who self publish then and make a lot of money and they talk about how smart they are. Did you ever read an article about someone who is self-published and nothing happens? Me neither.

I also don’t have any collateral. So I say, ‘you’re going to buy the book before I write it’. They then take a lot of risk and they give me an unspectacular royalty. So I’m guaranteed to make money upfront. So whatever happens with it I can say that I made enough money to write it. Look, no one is ever going to have big sympathy for Berlesman, which is as it should be. But they do serve a function. If they didn’t serve a function, no one would make those deals.

PI         And El James?

RL        I salute that. I don’t think you need one but a publishing deal is very helpful. Me, I needed to put money into it before I could get anything out of it. I needed to pay for travel for research. If I were rich I could have financed it myself and kept everything but there are always those people who are not wealthy. Those people who want that then why shouldn’t they have it? If EL James wants it for herself than I have only admiration for that. The one thing I’ll say about that book is that when I saw it in Sweden I immediately called my friend (from Sweden) and gave her a hard time about it. I said ‘my god you guys are known for your porn – you are supposed to be the aesthetes of it and you import this?’

PI         What’s your Take on The Penguin Merger?

RL        As a writer I have two competing interests. On the one hand I want lots of publishers competing over me. My only hope of a good advance is to play them against each other. I also need someone to have market power against Amazon. People who publish for themselves- I don’t object to that- I’m not sure how practical it is but it’s totally their right. I think (if you will excuse my being a little bratty) that everyone should publish a book. I just don’t think everyone should publish my book.  I want control over it or the representative that I put my trust in to do that.

PI         How do you feel about eBook pricing and what is now being recognised as a particularly cynical pricing trend?

RL        I think you are talking about two different things. Part of this is saying ‘hey, can you publish your book for a dollar?’ I think that’s your right. If your book costs a dollar and I want to sell my book for ten dollars then my response is tough f*****g luck! I have to somehow convince people to pay more for my book than for your book. People pay all sorts of prices for all sorts of things that they see value in. Deliberately down pricing my book so that you can buy a market share? That’s wrong. That’s different. Everyone has the right to give away their book. I’m allowed to resent you for it because I think the progressive tradition that people who work for free when everyone else works for their living are not the kind of people that you like. As a labour issue, it’s creepy. I would argue that in the long term, if you are giving something away that everyone else is trying to sell, you can be seen as creepy and that’s a good way to deal with that but you have a right to do it either way. I don’t want Amazon to buy market shares but they are going to use it to establish a monopoly and that’s going to be bad for everybody.

PI         How will this kind of down pricing affect writers in the long-term?

RL        Think about how many books there are on copyright- mostly from the other side. There must be 50 books on why copyright is the worst idea in the history of the human species- all written by university professors. They all get paid by the universities to write books. People still want my book though which is good I guess!  You do have to have a little fanatical belief in yourself to be a writer. What bothers me though about Amazon is that they really aggressively down price- their propaganda that trying to get a higher price for your work is unfair. They think fifteen dollars for their book is overpriced. Now they can think anything they want but I don’t want to give them that kind of market control. They put a lot of propaganda behind the idea that the right price for a digital book is ten dollars. I don’t, for example think that my book would make more money if it had a mass audience, whereas the kind of book Tim Ferris writes- that makes sense to sell it for less to more people. I guess it depends.
I object to that. In some cases it’s perfectly legal but I don’t think that it’s healthy for the market and I think writers will end up resenting them for it.

PI         There have been lots of studies that say piracy is a victimless crime and that in reality, sales remain unaffected by it. Some even say that it helps to promote sales- particularly in music. Is there anything in this? Is Piracy really affecting the market in the way people are saying?

RL        Oh yeah. What piracy does it that it hurts the market. Everyone has these different statistics and they’re all kind of nonsense. I do think that you do see damage. You see the music business falling apart. You do see much less investment in new acts. It matters. You see a loss in pricing power – that’s damage too. It’s not only loss in sales but an undercutting of pricing power. It’s taking bad deals because you’re afraid you won’t have a deal. You have Amazon saying, ‘let’s sell this for ten dollars or someone will pirate it’ you know?’ That’s damage too. How do you calculate that? I don’t know. All that proves is that the people who listen to music listen to music. Neither of my parents downloads any music illegally but neither of them buys CD’s. Why? They don’t like music! I don’t really see a causal relationship there. Piracy hurts things a little until it undercuts the market- than it really hurts and you can see it. With books it’s like selling books for ten bucks- it’s not a big deal until somewhere like borders files for bankruptcy. When borders closed – everyone was like holy shit we’re in trouble!’ It’s gradual. Once you had enough piracy to hurt borders, that made a difference. Barnes & Noble are probably going to stop selling CD’s. Then what happens? Here at HMV. The biggest drop in music sales this year…I can already tell you what the cause is in 2013 in the UK is going to be HMV closing. What was the cause of HMV closing? Piracy was part of the cause- not the whole cause- people like to buy online. But it was one the causes. I don’t know how to isolate that, but in my defence, no one else does either.

PI         Is their an argument to be made for the winning-out of creative ingenuity- an element which seems to be far more prevalent in technology-based companies like Apple, Amazon and Google? Would it be fair to say that the likes of publishers and record companies have simply not stepped up to the plate when it comes to agility in a changing market?

RL        Yes and no. Amazon had a lot of good ideas in terms of how to sell stuff. They also don’t pay any VAT, so they have an unfair advantage. They also pay their employees a lot less. Amazon, both in print and in digital is really good at lowering the prices of stuff. So is Walmart. Why do we admire one company and condemn the other? As I see it, when you make something cheaper, something comes from somebody. The kindle is a pretty great machine but does Amazon have a business because the Kindle is a great machine or do they bully publishers? As far as Apple goes, it’s got a lot of power. It can dictate terms to labels. Record companies had a lot of power- they dictated terms to musicians. There is an extent to which they deserve each other. Look, Apple is a fairly aggressive company with a lot of not very nice people…but they play by the rules. I don’t think Google plays by the rules. What YouTube did was say….’we have all your stuff, now let’s talk about money.’ What kind of negotiating position do you have? Google has actually made piracy into a negotiating tool. How much marketing power do you want one company to have? Do you read pieces that are critical of Amazon? You read a lot of pieces that are critical of Walmart- books even. I think that’s weird.

PI         How do you feel about the proportionality of sentencing for copyright infringement? I’m particularly curious to know how you feel about Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig’s reaction to the tragic suicide of Aaron Schwarz (the founder of Reddit, who decided to hack into jstor and planned to release all the academic articles for free online). He was harassed and threatened with jail, and under the pressure committed suicide. Did the Justice Department go too far?

RL        No one looks good here. The Justice Department was out of line, I mean, that’s pretty clear. By the same token though, they weren’t asking him to go to jail for 35 years, they were asking him to go to jail for six months. The other thing is that this wasn’t someone who said….’look I’ll never do it again’. This is someone who did something and announced his intention to do it again. What do you do with that? Also, when you think of how Lessing compared him to Martin Luther King? I mean that’s pretty offensive. Everyone turned this guy into a martyr. The f****d  up thing about it is though, is however you feel about the different issues involved, there’s nothing heroic about what he did. Romanticising killing yourself- it’s irresponsible for Lawrence lessig to go around romanticising him as a martyr because kids read that stuff and think he’s heroic. You can admire what he did; I mean I don’t admire what he did. I admire his dedication and his intellect, but there’s nothing cool about what he did. I don’t think his parents and his girlfriend get a lot of comfort from the fact that he’s cast as a martyr.

Robert Levine is the author of Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How it Can Fight Back, published by Doubleday. For more information about Robert and his book, go to

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