Freeloading, a new book by first-time author Chris Ruen, is the latest in a series of books about how the mass-scale copyright infringement enabled by the Internet is hurting culture and creativity, written by someone who used to believe the other side of the argument. The high points in this series are Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget (from 2010), a powerful philosophical tract written by a technology pioneer who is also a musician and recording artist, and Robert Levine’s Free Ride (from 2011), an equally powerful piece of journalism that tells the “other side of the story” from the usual story about how Internet companies are the good guys and media companies are the bad guys.
Ruen comes to this subject matter as a fan of indie rock who downloaded lots of music from file-sharing sites, then came to see the effect of illegal file-sharing on the livelihoods of his favorite artists and saw the error of his ways.
The most valuable part of Freeloading is the “raw data” rather than the analysis: Ruen talks to several indie musicians who give first-hand accounts of how difficult it is for them to make a living from music. The book contains nary a mention of major labels, the RIAA, or famous rock stars. Most of Ruen’s subjects are the kinds of artists that get glowing reviews in Pitchfork. These personal statements are powerful, if repetitive after a while.
The arguments that Ruen makes for stopping infringement are mostly moral ones. As his ultimate authority for the value of copyright, he points to Article 27 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document written in 1948, which says: “Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.”
Of the several angles available for analyzing the problem of copyright infringement, the moral angle is a limited one. It boils down to this: if we just educate people about copyright and appeal to their sense of ethics, they will tend to do the right thing. But there’s more to it than that. As Larry Lessig has explained, there are four factors that govern cyberspace: the market (economics), architecture (technology), people’s behaviors (norms), and laws (self-explanatory).
Moral arguments attempt to influence behavioral norms without taking the other three elements into account. Such arguments have had limited effect over the years; they have even been objects of ridicule (such as BPI’s “Home Taping Is Killing Music” campaign in the UK in the 1980s). They are also easily dismissed, by saying that they come from exploitative media companies, rich celebrities, or disgruntled unknowns who probably don’t deserve to make a living because their content isn’t any good.
Ruen’s aggregation of critically respected indie musicians is a decent stab at bridging this credibility gap, but it’s not clear how much good it will do. For one thing, if it gets picked up by the RIAA, a major label, or a rock star, its impact will be blunted. Morover, taken to its logical conclusion, this argument would relegate indie content to the NPR-pledge-drive status of classical music and jazz, where supporting it is a matter of volunteerism and philanthropy rather than capitalism.
It doesn’t look like Ruen has been around long enough to understand that these moral/ethical arguments don’t work. Indie-rock icon David Lowery pursues the same general theme in his blog The Trichordist (“Artists for an Ethical and Sustainable Internet”). Yet he does so in full knowledge of the other factors, because he knows he doesn’t have the wherewithal to pursue changes in the law or launch new business models with major label support. The tactics to limit commercial piracy that he advocates are eminently pragmatic, not theoretical.
Ruen does try to marshal legal arguments, but his shallow understanding of the law — and even shallower understanding of relevant digital technologies — don’t help. In general, this book feels like the equivalent of a show by a college radio DJ who recently worked his way through various indie bands to discover the Velvet Underground, and is eagerly sharing his finding with the fervor of the newly converted. There’s a chance that you might really like it, but if you’ve heard the “revelation” before, maybe not so much. The sentiment and passion in Freeloading are right, but the authority and depth of analysis just aren’t there compared to Lanier or Levine.
Ruen ends the book by offering a manifesto of principles about copyright, which he calls “FairLoading.” These include the right of content creators to distribute their works as they choose, prohibiting anyone from “knowingly exploit[ing] a creator’s unlicensed creative works for pleasure or profit,” and intellectual property trumping free speech rights. They also include 50/50 royalty splits between musicians and record labels, and reducing the term of copyright to 50 years. The force of these recommendations is undermined by the fact that they’re offered in a vacuum, without reference to any laws or conventions that they might replace.
At the Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit in Washington last month, Ruen echoed previous comments by Robert Levine that copyright is too long and broad but not enforced. It’s too bad that Ruen did not explore this theme in his book. If we (as a society) want to make real progress against infringement, we have to get serious about enforcement. Even Lanier and Levine stop short of offering specifics about this. That’s not surprising, because it will lead to uncomfortable discussions about technology and freedom online. People like Chris Ruen, if they really want to help, need to both educate themselves about these issues and gather up the courage for such discussions. Appealing to ethics and morals has been proven not to go far enough.
P.S. the publisher of Freeloading, OR Books, features an endorsement on its website by the copyleft ideologue Cory Doctorow. I wonder what he thinks of this book…