Information Is Free… Particularly if It’s Stolen

Napster, Grooveshark and Hotfile. YouTube, RapidShare and Pirate Bay. Google Books, ebookfreedownload and greylib. Some are, or were, outright thieves’ markets for stolen goods – music, motion pictures, television programs, books – while others have just occasionally been clueless about the concept of copyright. Whether they even bother hiding behind the self-righteous (and baseless) banner of “freedom of information” or just shrug and admit that they are selling something that doesn’t rightfully belong to them, these and many other online sites are making millions of dollars a year by selling other people’s creative efforts.

At its core, the conflict between criminal greed and private property is, more than ever, a growing issue on the Internet. Make no mistake: Copyright is about ownership of private property; nothing more, and nothing less. When the U.S. Congress was holding hearings about what would become the Copyright Act of 1909, Mark Twain himself appeared as a witness to give testimony. As holder of what was arguably the most valuable copyrights in the world at the time, Twain asked a simple question: If someone built a house using his own materials, would his ownership of that house be limited to a certain number of years before it became completely open to the public? In retrospect, his concerns seem almost quaint. Were he alive today, he’d find that he would be hard pressed to see his works even get into print before people began trooping in the analogous front door, putting their muddy boots up on the sofa, rooting through the icebox and eyeing the copper pipes in the bathroom.

The subject of copyright usually evokes one of two reactions: Eye-rolling because the subject is so boring, or eye-rolling because the subject is so complicated and filled with minutiae. Unless, of course, someone who actually holds a copyright is present, in which case the subject is discussed at length and in detail. Even as laws make it easier for the creators of music, film or books to obtain copyright, technology has made it even more difficult to actually make that copyright enforceable.

It is unfair to blame the technology alone for this rapid devaluation of the value of a copyright. The overarching problem is the public’s misunderstanding of, ambivalence about or even outright hostility to the concept of private ownership of creative effort. Those golden eggs are just so bright and shiny, while the goose is obviously fat and over-fed.

Robert Levine has experience in both the worlds of entertainment business (former executive editor of Billboard) and modern technology (Wired), and has a firm grounding in the issues and the writing skills to inform the interested reader. Even though his own views are evident, as can be seen from the sub-title of his book, he approaches the subject of electronic piracy fairly, rationally and thoroughly. Most importantly, he forcefully makes the case that it is everyone’s best interest – particularly the consumers’ – that piracy of creative works be addressed and overcome.

If you use an iPad, MP3 player, ebook reader or download movies and television programs, you really should read Free Ride. If you hold a copyright, you should read it twice. And, for pity’s sake, buy a copy. At the very least, check it out of a public library.

Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back / by Robert Levine. New York: Doubleday, 2011. 307 p. $26.95



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