A songwriter drops into his local bar and is startled to hear the band banging out his latest tune. He could suspect any number of Internet pirates, who make a living by lifting original material without paying for it. Except that it's 1847 in France and Ernest Bourget is an early victim of the cultural war now dominating this century: whether to pay the piper or simply swipe art, music, writing, film and television via the Internet in the name of "free" speech.
More than 150 years later, the battle between those who want to be paid for their creations and consumers who like to get it for free – along with the "digital parasites" who deliver the goods in the middle – intensifies in the modern cybercafé: Not only is the songwriter's new ballad blaring from the stage, patrons are downloading it for free, file-sharing and remixing the music and uploading it within in seconds to YouTube. Everybody is benefiting from our songwriter's latest inspiration, but so far his profit is measly. "It's never been easier to distribute creative work. At the same time, it's never been harder to get paid for it," according to former Billboard editor and New York Times writer Robert Levine.
For those who think the Internet should remain a sprawling bazaar of free samples, a utopian clearing house for consumers who don't pay, Levine has a harsh, well-researched wake-up call: "It's time to ask whether any significant professional media business can thrive in an environment where information can be taken so easily. When nearly a quarter of global Internet traffic consists of pirated content."
In 2003, for example, NBC delivered an $800-million (U.S.) profit to its owner, General Electric. Just seven years later, the network was looking to lose more than $100-million. At the same time, Levine says, while viewers were busy downloading Saturday Night Live from the Internet, Google was poised to buy YouTube for $1.65-billion.
You can only suck out online content without paying the tab for so long. At some point, and Levine thinks we've reached it already in television, for instance, hijacking content that someone else paid to create deprives content creators of the cash to make more of it. (A quick survey of newsrooms, music companies and book publishers shows just how severely swipe-and-post policies have gutted financed expression.)
Levine argues that job losses, budget cuts and a shrinking news media are the result of online swashbucklers who swindle craftspeople and consumers alike: "Rather than encourage innovation and excellence, it rewards cost-cutting and crowd-sourcing."
Levine's polemic takes bold aim at those who confuse "free speech" with "free of cost," along with the powerful technology companies that enjoy the proceeds of copyright infringement.
"Google has as much interest in free online media as General Motors does in cheap gasoline," he says. In other words, the more material made available – by whatever means – the more valuable the search engines that troll for it. Levine writes: "The real conflict online is between the media companies that fund much of the entertainment we read, see and hear, and the technology firms that want to distribute their content – legally or otherwise."
What you will not find much of here is an attempt to explore seriously the argument in favour of the free flow of information. That's a pity and a strategic error. Levine's understanding of the history and the law is admirably comprehensive and, in keeping with good journalism, expressed with relative simplicity. But dismissing proponents of a regulation-free Internet as mere parasites does little to move us closer to a truce.
Solutions are in flux, with billions hanging in the balance. Levine points with some approval to pay walls, blanket licences, apps for purchase and greater enforcement of ownership: "The way some websites and online locker services maintain willful ignorance about copyright infringement – arguing that it's someone else's problem – is no way to run a legitimate business."
As for our French 19th-century songwriter, Levine notes he refused to pay his bar tab on the grounds Les Ambassadeurs Café hadn't paid him. Bourget went on to co-found the French collecting society SACEM (Société des Auteurs, Compositeurs, et Editeurs de Musique), which sold a blanket licence to its members' music and split the proceeds with the creators (a model still in use internationally).
But the macro problem, Levine says, is which paradigm to back: Should the Internet ("Splinternet") become more like cable TV, with structured fees, or should cable (and other media) throw up their hands and let the information flow freely? Levine has produced an Internet primer with a passionate point of view that is essential reading for anyone trying to decide.
Paula Todd is a broadcaster, writer and lawyer who teaches journalism at Seneca@York.