A well researched exploration of the challenges facing content industries in today’s digital environment hit bookshelves in Canada today.
by Robert Levine
examines the current state of affairs facing cultural industries and their relationship with the internet, largely in the United States and Europe, but naturally, given the borderless nature of the web, in a way that can be applied to other countries including Canada.
In one example after another, Levine demonstrates how the internet and the technology giants who profit from it, are challenging the very model of cultural creation. Whether considering music, film, television, newspapers or book publishing, Levine describes a myriad of alternate delivery models, some legitimate, others not, that prosper by providing access to content, and yet have and continue to threaten the very creation of that content by driving its value to zero.
But lest it appear that his review is one-sided, it’s important to note that no stakeholder remains unscathed in Levine’s examination of how we arrived at this point.
Levine challenges many of the commonly expressed objections to copyright protection like the idea that stronger copyright inhibits creation, or threatens free expression, or that today’s remix culture somehow justifies piracy by necessitating that content be available for free.
In one of my favourite passages in the book, he disputes the findings of economists Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf who suggested that artists would continue to create music even without adequate remuneration:
“Essentially, two respected economists argued that people will work for beer. (This may be literally true, of course, but that doesn’t mean they’ll work as hard as they otherwise might have.) Oberholzer-Gee and Strumpf also pointed out that the music business has grown over the last decade if you count iPod sales. Since in the United States none of this revenue goes to anyone who makes music, this is like saying the clothing business is booming if you count the installation of customized closets-both technically accurate and entirely beside the point.”
In relating his own experience writing the book, Levine objects to the idea that authors or musicians should just give away their work for free and tour to make a living. “Although technology has revolutionized the process of distributing books, it hasn’t fundamentally changed the process of writing one,” he says, pointing to the costly and lengthy process needed to research, write and edit, and making a direct comparison to the process of recording an album.
Not surprisingly, Levine doesn’t find any easy solutions. He emphasizes that legitimate services must compete on price and on convenience. Since most illegitimate services offer pirated content for free, he points out that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must help make piracy inconvenient if legitimate services are to stand a chance. He strongly advocates for some form of filtering by ISPs to identify illegal content, similar to what has more recently been implemented by YouTube in response to concerns from copyright holders.
And to add urgency to this goal in a final, poignant remark, Levine says it “would be both ironic and tragic if the United States finally developed an information economy only to find that information isn’t actually worth anything.”