Monday, November 28, 2011

The Internet: Everything Has A Price

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A new book about an old problem:  Has the internet become an “artistic wasteland” where content has been devalued by distributors who get a free ride?  In my opinion, the answer is a resounding “yes!”

The book, Free Ride, by Robert Levine, is worth singling out, because it addresses how the culture business can fight back.  While I have not yet read the book, I am highlighting and commenting on the review I read in the Sunday Book Review section of The New York Times, simply to give Levine’s strategy a further airing, as we all consider a solution to this problem. 

The issue, Levine says, is “between the media companies that fund much of the entertainment that we read, see and hear and the technology firms” who want to distribute the content, legally or otherwise.  The free-riding distributors “reap all the economic benefits of the Internet by cutting prices and the culture suppliers are forced to cut costs in response.”

The crux of the problem is copyright laws which are poorly crafted and hard to enforce, allowing this situation to develop.  Further, the review points out, copyright protections have become illusory in an age when movies and music are available on pirate sites even before they are released.  Thus media companies have little leverage when negotiating with distributors, whom Levine refers to as “digital parasites.”  A startling example is that despite the growth of online audiences, recorded music in the U.S. was worth $6.3 billion in sales in ’09, less than half its value a decade earlier, the review notes. 

Levine’s solution is the European model, which has a long history of supporting its culture business and taking a strong stand against piracy.  Primarily, it is likely that its copyright laws are enforceable.  Rather than filing mass lawsuits against individuals who upload pirated material, the review suggests, European regulators bring down the most flagrant violators among distributors.  Levine also cites France for its blanket license which adds fees to internet connections, enabling a division of the money collected between the distributors and the artists. 

Levine concludes that while the status quo may benefit consumers in the short term, the internet will eventually become dominated by cultural amateurs — a “world where music, TV, and journalism are virtually free, and where all of us get what we pay for.”

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