Digital Age Not Golden For Writers, Artists

Robert LevineOn Sunday in The New York Times Magazine, author Steven Johnson pointedly asked, “How is today’s creative class faring?” His own analysis of available data drew Johnson to conclude that the much-threatened “creative apocalypse” hadn’t materialized. That contrarian conclusion might be expected from a writer who has also argued that pop culture fosters complex thinking and not intellectual sloth as many suppose.

Not surprisingly, many in the creative communities have struck back at the Johnson piece. They see a world of hurt in the wake of the Internet Age for all media. Rob Levine, a former Billboard executive editor and author of Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back is among those best qualified to make a rejoinder. Levine has written often about the destructive impact of digital technology on culture and media, particularly as it affects writers and artists.

“He’s asking the wrong question. [Johnson is] trying to figure out if creators as a group are making more money. There’s considerable evidence they’re not,” writes Levine. “What we should be looking at instead is whether creators can sell their work in a fair and functioning market that will reward them according to the demand for their work.”

Imagining such a marketplace in 2015, Levine argues, calls for respect of creators’ rights to control the distribution of their works and to earn a living from them.

“That’s why we have copyright — because the best way to find out which artists ought to be creating what is to see who wants it and what they’re willing to pay,” he continues. “This isn’t a perfect system, and it has never worked in isolation — artists have always gotten money from grants, academics and teaching gigs. But it only works at all if creators have rights to their work — to sell, license, or even give it away, if that’s what they wish-and on the Internet they sometimes only seem to exist in theory.”

In an OnCopyright 2012 keynote address, Levine examined how the commonly used language of copyright shapes the debate and makes for confusion on the fundamentals “I don’t think copyright infringement is stealing. The idea that this is stealing, I think, introduces a moral tone that I don’t like. I don’t like to treat it as a moral issue. I’d like to treat it as a legal issue and an economic issue.”

“It’s also not sharing,” he continued. “Sharing implies good. If you’re sharing my book, that implies that you’re doing something good. I think stealing and sharing are both not what’s going on. I think copyright infringement is a very good term for what’s going on. I would encourage more people to use it.”

Rob Levine spoke with CCC’s Chris Kenneally on Wednesday.

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