This book was forced on me. Required reading for my economics class, I started this book with the expectation of disliking it. I had little knowledge of Robert Levine, except that (judging from the subtitle) he is some sort of “Big Media” apologist.
The introduction and first chapter did nothing to alleviate my fears. Though his arguments later became more coherent and much more persuasive (more on that in a minute), the beginning of the book reads like a paranoid anti-technology screed. The “digital parasites” referred to in the book’s title are Google, YouTube, internet service providers, and any of a number of other technology companies that Levine argues are part of an enormous conspiracy to destroy copyright. These businesses, Levine claims, need professionally produced content to build a profitable audience, so they allow users to post infringing content, and bask in the protection of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act while raking in enormous profits on the backs of the poor media titans. This conspiracy involves all sorts of fake grassroots organizations and prominent figures on Google’s payroll. Honestly, I am not educated enough about the history discussed to know how accurate any of his claims might be (some quite reasonable, others wildly improbable), but by the beginning of the second chapter I was ready to take up a collection to buy the man a tin foil hat.
Later chapters, however, were very informative, and if not necessarily balanced, were at least not unhinged, and did make me question a number of assumptions that I have taken as gospel. His description of the severe issues facing the newspaper and magazine industries was very enlightening and made me much more cognizant of the desperation behind such actions as creating a paywall. High quality content is expensive and much more difficult to monetize than a blurb about the latest nude photo scandal. Levine also explains the history behind copy protection on DVDs, and how, had it never came about, the movie industry would likely be in the same place as the music industry, which tried to place similar protections on CDs too late.
The final chapters of Free Ride- “How the Culture Bisiness Can Fight Back”- isn’t about legislation, or technical solutions to piracy. They are instead much more reasonable and rational than I would have given the author credit for, instead proposing ways to monetize content in a world of rampant piracy. The idea put forward is that of a blanket license- a monthly fee for access to media. Instead of being forced to pay, consumers would choose to pay for an increase in convenience. This would only be possible in a world of partially closed networks, such as Xbox Live, or AppleTV, where it is possible to consume pirated content, but an awful lot easier to pay for it. Enforcement would come by means of small infringement law suits of roughly $50 which Levine explains, would be like a speeding ticket- unpleasant but routine. Levine explains the many challenges of implementing such a system, but remains optimistic that a similar system will eventually be put in place.
I really cannot say that I would recommend this book. Though parts were enlightening, the constant need to consider every statement critically in light of the author’s blatant agenda and frequent exaggeration and twisting of the facts was exhausting.