What Happens When You Get Two Internet Haters Together? An Interview That Kills Brain Cells

from the you-said-what-now? dept

I've recently (separately) questioned some dubious claims by neo-luddites Rob Levine and Scott Timberg, so when the two of them get together to have a conversation, I have to admit that it almost made my head explode in seeing almost every sentence be chock full of "wrong." Let's dive in to some of it:
The premise of my book is that most online companies rely for their content, and hence for their money, on traditional media companies. If they destroy that business model, itís unclear what theyíre going to have to distribute.
Yes, because no one else ever shows up to fill that gap. Does Levine have no idea how culture responds to demand? Besides, this is just another line like Valenti's old "Boston Strangler" line. People who don't know or understand culture or history always blame the new technology for "killing" off the old industry. The reality -- as shown time and time again -- is that it actually enhances and grows that industry. You see it again and again. The sheet music industry insisted the player piano would kill the music business. John Philip Sousa insisted that the phonograph would kill the music industry, because with it, no one would ever learn to play music or want to hear live music again. The publishing industry insisted that the photocopier would be the end of its business model.

Levine follows in a long line of people who got it wrong. People who don't understand technology or culture or trends. When technology makes things more efficient you get more of it, not less. It may change business models, but in the end it always creates greater output, greater value. Timberg, of course, doesn't challenge Levine on this bizarre assertion, but remember, Timberg is the guy who claimed our creative class is gone because no one works at record stores any more.
If you look at YouTube, eight of the top 10 videos are major-label music videos. If the major labels shrank to the point where they canít make videos, YouTube isnít much of a business.
Does Rob not know how much money YouTube is making for the smart acts that use it correctly? Ask the band OK GO where they'd be without YouTube. Ask the Gregory Brothers. For content creators that know how to use the platform (not Levine, apparently), it's a huge boost to their business. And, if the major labels shrank to the point where they can't make videos, (1) others would still make music videos and (2) YouTube is still a huge business. Levine offers no proof that without Universal Music making videos YouTube stops making money. That's because he can't. It's a blatantly ridiculous assertion.
technology creates uncertainty and regulation solves uncertainty.
I'll just leave that one hanging for people to laugh about. I'm wondering which world Levine lives in where regulation solves uncertainty.
When the car was [created], no one knew how fast you were allowed to drive. We came up with speed limits and that solved some of the uncertainty Ė didnít solve it perfectly, but it made the roads safer.
Actually, it didn't. As multiple studies have shown over the years, speed limits have had almost no impact on road safety. Well, that's not entirely true. One report says that the implementation of speed limits appears to decrease road safety. And that's because speed limits were never actually put in place for road safety, but for state revenue generation. How can anyone trust Levine when he claims things to be facts that the data shows just isn't true?
Then [Congress] came up with the DMCA, which I think was sort of the original sin. The idea was we have to say something before you want to take something that infringes on copyright down.... The important provision was notice and takedown. You have safe harbor from copyright liability if you follow this notice and takedown procedure. It turns 300 years of copyright law on its head by making it an opt-out system instead of an opt-in system.
Someone doesn't know the history of copyright law at all. The notice and takedown provision certainly has many problems, but the idea that you properly apply liability to those who actually do the infringement is sorta common sense. The problem is that Levine is confused. He seems to think that a site is the content creator or publisher, rather than the tool. We never blamed the physical printing press for the infringement that was done on them. So why does Levine want to blame the tool now? That would be turning copyright law on its head.

And, if he's honestly talking about what turned copyright law on its head by making an opt-in system into an opt-out system, he must actually be talking about the 1976 Copyright Act, which put all new creative works under copyright at the moment they were fixed, rather than requiring you to register and follow certain formalities. That was about turning copyright on its head. Using the DMCA to clarify that you don't blame the tool for the user's actions? That's just common sense to keep the clueless in line.
Dozens of sites will use this interview until you specifically tell them not to.
Including mine. And in this case, it's called fair use. But Levine prefers permission culture. And that should be scary to anyone who understands how culture works. You don't want artists asking for permission. You want them to create.
One of the desirable things that copyright laws do is create some kind of market for intellectual property
This is economically wrong. While it's true that copyright law creates a market for copyright, there's no economic evidence that that, in itself, is desirable. If you have something that is infinitely reproducible, such as ideas, to put artificial limitations on them is economically inefficient and limits growth. It's the opposite of a "desirable thing." There's this problem with people who know just enough economics to be dangerous, where they learn that "free markets" are a good thing, and they seem to think that means all markets are good things. But artificially created markets are, by their very definition, inefficient. The value brought about by markets is in their efficiency.

A simple example. We could, if we so chose, create a "market" for air. You and I breathe freely (in monetary terms), but based on Levine's reasoning, we'd be better if we charged. After all, it would create a market for air. That would make some people rich, but it would make most people poor (and potentially kill a bunch too, but that's besides the point). Putting in place an artificial barrier to create a market where none is needed is not "desirable," it's the very definition of economic waste and inefficiency.
Google News is not as useful if thereís not as much news to Google. I mean, Google is an information search tool, right? Itís not a moral issue. But the problem youíve created, you create a very powerful incentive for somebody to create a better search engine. You eliminate [the] incentive to create better journalism. That is a problem.
As far as I can tell, the number of sources within Google News appears to keep going up. And, frankly, I'm seeing better and better journalism. Even Salon, which has published this Timberg/Levine disaster, often has good journalism (just not in this particular piece). So, um, where's the evidence that journalism is somehow getting worse. I just don't see it.
The middleman hasnít been eliminated. Thereís a new middleman. YouTube is the new middleman. YouTube, just now, was giving professional content creators advances against future royalties. Is it a good middleman? I donít know. YouTube has a lot of good technology. They obviously have other advantages. It could be a smart deal. It depends on the advance; it depends on what you want. But I would say that the idea that YouTube is fundamentally different from a record company is silly. YouTube probably has a higher percentage of the market for online video than all four major labels combined have of recorded music. Whoís stopping their market power? No one, and everyone is saying itís a progressive thing.
Wow. Levine was an executive editor for Billboard. He must be familiar with record label deals. To claim that YouTube is the same sort of middleman as a record label pretty much destroys any and all credibility he might have. And, as we've pointed out many, many times, the whole idea that middlemen go away is a myth. It makes for a nice strawman from Timberg, but it's always been a myth. What go away are gatekeepers. There's still obviously a massive role for middlemen who enable artists, but that's different from gatekeepers who give back very little to artists.

A record label deal involves giving up all of your copyrights, entirely. It involves one of the worst deals you'll ever see, in terms of getting a tiny percentage of royalties, and every expense that the label spends on your behalf first has to be "recouped" out of just your (tiny) portion of the revenue. Basically, the labels give you a loan with ridiculously bad terms... and then get to keep the collateral no matter what. When YouTube starts offering deals as ridiculous as that, let me know. Because as far as I can tell, it seems to be enabling careers of all sorts of new artists who are making tons of money off of YouTube (or because of YouTube) without having to give up any control or all future profits.
What you rarely hear is that the French tradition Ė and this applies, to varying degrees, to a lot of other countries in Europe Ė copyright is a fundamental right. It is your work and you have a fundamental right to it. Whatís interesting is you have a lot of people talking about the right to remix. In Europe, not only is there very little legal support for a right to remix, thereís a decent amount of support for a right not to be remixed. You have a right to the paternity and the integrity of your work. Itís a moral right. So someone says, ďI want to remix Rob Levineís book so that every 10 words itís going to say: Rob Levine eats stinky pooĒ Ė by the way, Iím fairly certain that somebody would call this an art project Ė I can say, ďNo. I have a right to my work.Ē I think a lot of people would find that very reasonable.
I really do wonder why that's "very reasonable." If someone were to write that remix of Levine's book... who would care? Would it impact Levine's actual book? Would the creation of such a work somehow make Levine's actual book disappear and the only way you could read his book is with the words "Rob Levine eats stinky poo"? Of course not. No one would care, because putting such things in his book is a stupid idea that no one in the market would care about. Now, if someone actually does create something that the market cares about, in the form of a remix (for example, someone like Girl Talk or Kutiman), then the world is actually better off. It takes nothing away from the original and people get an amazing new work. How is that a bad thing? It seems like a very good thing.
When Google says newspapers should be free on the Internet, they may really believe that, but you also have to keep in mind that itís a huge help to them. Right?
I'm curious where Google has ever said that newspapers "should be free on the Internet," as Levine claims here. I distinctly recall Google actually building its own tools to help with paywalls. So I'm at a total loss as to why Levine would claim this. Furthermore, Levine seems to not understand the nature of non-zero sum markets. If something benefits Google (or any other third party) that doesn't mean it can't also benefit the content creator.

This is a common logical fallacy among folks who don't understand new business models and new platforms. They seem to think that these markets are zero-sum games. Thus, when iTunes starts doing well, the record labels freak out that it's making too much money (as if some of the money Apple made for dragging them into the digital era belongs to them). It's why you now see Hollywood trying to cripple Netflix, and the TV guys trying to kill Hulu (even though they own it). They're treating these all as zero sum games. They see Apple, Netflix and Hulu making money and they say "that's not fair, that's money that's being taken away from us." What they don't see is that these systems are doing no such thing. They're expanding the market, making things more efficient, and moving away from old inefficiencies. And, yes, they put in place smart business models so that they get a cut of that, but that doesn't mean they're not also incredibly useful to content creators.

The interview goes on and on from there... in a similar vein. At this point, my brain is so full of wrong ideas from the two of them that I'm giving up. This is pretty disappointing from Salon, which I thought would like to publish things that were, you know, based in fact.

Filed Under: culture, economics, free rider, internet, regulations, rob levine, scott timberg


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Nov 2011 @ 4:58pm

    Re: almost there

    That's an impressive list of cogent points you've assembled.

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