We've talked a few times about the ridiculously unsupported and unsupportable claim by Robert Levine that the "tech industry" (by which he means "Google") is somehow destroying culture
by "free riding" on content. There are so many things wrong with this argument that it would take an entire book to debunk them one by one. But, as we've recently shown, the culture business isn't dying at all
-- instead, it's been growing quite nicely over the past decade. So what's going on? Lateef Mtima, from the Institute for Intellectual Property and Social Justice at Howard University does a nice job dismantling Levine's argument
by showing that what Levine is arguing isn't about "saving the cultural busness," it's about saving a few giant media conglomerates who used to be the gatekeepers to culture (often at the expense of artists -- especially minority artists), and pretending that without those companies, there wouldn't be much culture. As Mtima notes, this is, ultimately, an incredibly elitist position:
Culture is not something reserved to an elite. No particular business or set of businesses and no particular business model should be protected from the winds of innovation and change in the name of preserving culture. A people’s culture is just that -- the people’s culture....
And this is really a key point. The few companies that Levine is looking to save are not
the deciders and arbiters of culture, no matter how much Levine wants them to be. In fact, they're often the companies who are really cheapening culture themselves and stripping
the rights from the artists themselves, signing them to ridiculously one-sided contracts that are almost criminal in how they strip artists of their own rights and toss them out on the street for the profit of a few business fat cats.
Initially Levine presents his book on the pending doom of American culture as an appeal really done on behalf of the financial interests of artists, writers, and musicians. (One might be forgiven for skepticism and for asking where was/is Levine on the issue of IP corporate establishment exploitation of African American and other marginalized artists who have been pillaged by those entities for more than a century.)
Of course “protecting struggling artists” is only the cover story. Levine actually knows what many other Americans realize–that most artists are trapped in contractual peonage with their corporate distributers and that they often retain no property interests capable of being ravaged by third-party pirates.
It really is quite a disgusting, paternalistic, almost antebellum argument: that these poor artists need some big conglomerate to come "rescue them," take control of their rights, in order to produce "the culture business." The reality is quite different of course. What's happening every day out here, in the real world, is that new companies -- often from the "tech industry" that Levine insists is killing off his heroes at the major labels and studios -- are providing the tools for amazing new cultural works to be produced, distributed, promoted, shared and monetized. Witness the great success
of companies like Kickstarter, and the fact that they're doing it without typical Hollywood smarminess
But the real cultural elitism from Levine shows through in his disdain for the kinds of amazing culture produced all the time outside of the circles of the gatekeepers.
Levine utterly ignores creative and impactful and socially desirable user-generated material such as the insertion into a picture of Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” a still from the video of a policeman nonchalantly pepper spraying demonstrators engaging in the Occupy movement. Such works make statements and connect people culturally in ways Levine apparently does not value and would stop....
.... The constitutional grant of power to Congress to regulate copyrights and patents explicitly states that the purpose of such laws is to benefit the public. Innovation is to insure progress for everyone, not merely wealth for a few. The Internet may indeed be destroying the culture business, or at least some of it in its entrenched form, but it is not destroying culture. Intellectual property law is not designed to be, never has been intended to be, and must not be allowed to become the footservant of moneyed erstwhile overlords.
Levine's argument, in the end, comes down to a somewhat sickening assertion that without the Universal Musics of the world, artists wouldn't be able to produce their cultural works. It's that poor artists need big corporations to mold and shape their cultural creations, or such culture won't exist. To both the public and many artists, that argument isn't just laughable, it's insulting.