A middleman in the great internet copyright debate
Robert Levine is attacked on all sides in the polarised online piracy debate because he’s so reasonable
Going by his previous jobs, you might guess that Robert Levine, a former executive editor at Wired and Billboard magazine, might have an intriguing perspective on managing copyright and piracy on the internet.
And that proved to be the case when, in 2011, he published what he cheerfully admits is a “provocatively titled” book, Free Ride: how digital parasites are destroying the culture business, and how the culture business can fight back.
“A book called A Middle Ground View of Copyright and Piracy wouldn’t sell very much,” he says with a laugh when we met this week, and he wanted to be more pugnacious, though he acknowledges that the title of his book will rile and put off some people from the very start.
“I just hope people read the book so they see what it’s really about” – which is an impassioned plea for finding a way to protect the rights of content makers online in a debate that is generally dominated by technology industry pundits on one side and the content industry itself on the other.
His argument for a more nuanced middle ground, which he will expound on when he visits Dublin this week, is challenging, heartfelt and a useful addition to a debate that has already produced some of the net’s epic, global legal battles such as the mass online rally against proposed international copyright treaties SOPA (which he thinks was a poorly drafted attempt to improve copyright protections and fight piracy) and ACTA (which he thinks was generally OK but doomed as it followed so closely on the heels of the net community excoriation of SOPA).
Such a position alone will be a red rag to many internet campaigners, but interestingly, there are those, such as The Net Delusion author Evgeny Morozov, who reviewed the book and noted that it added some important arguments to this fraught area.
“His basic insight, that Silicon Valley’s penchant for experimentation may inadvertently hurt the culture industry, is correct,” wrote Morozov in the Observer.
The fact that Silicon Valley types – of technology, rather than media or cultural or content backgrounds – dominate the copyright discussion is one of Levine’s bugbears.
Speaking on the phone from Berlin, where he is now based, Levine says the majority of the population online in, say, 1995 – around the time when the internet began to take off as a public rather than private phenomenon – would have had pretty much the same political and social point of view.