Transcript: Robert Levine To Host OnCopyright 2014

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For podcast release Monday, March 10, 2014

KENNEALLY: From disruptive innovation to legislative evolution, the copyright conversation is getting plenty of attention, and on Wednesday, April 2nd at the New York Academy of Sciences, journalists, filmmakers and musicians joined media moguls and intellectual property attorneys to share ideas on the question that’s on everyone’s mind – what’s next?

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. OnCopyright 2014 is a one day symposium on content and copyright that brings together the people who create, publish, reinvent, curate, and share. Host for the day is Robert Levine, a journalist who covers the culture business from New York and Berlin and who is the author of Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back. Rob Levine previously was executive editor of Billboard Magazine and has written for Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and The New York Times. Welcome to Beyond the Book, Rob Levine.

LEVINE: Thank you very much, Chris.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’re looking forward to chatting with you today and to seeing you in New York on Wednesday, April 2nd, and we should tell people, Rob, that your book Free Ride was praised highly by Bill Keller in The New York Times as “a wonderfully clear-eyed account of the colossal struggle over the future of our cultural lives” and Fortune said it was “a smart, caustic tour of the modern culture industry,” and I can certainly back that up. Smart and caustic, meaning very sharp and very witty, so I have to ask you, Rob Levine, what was it that attracted you to the opportunity to host this event, OnCopyright 2014?

LEVINE: You know, as a journalist, the tradition is that you sort of have a lot of short-term relationships. You move from subject to subject, but in the course of writing the book, I got very addicted to copyright almost. I kept researching it. I kept reporting on it, and I wanted to have a bit of a voice in the debate. I’m not representing any companies. I’m not taking sides in legislative proposals, but I wanted to have some small part in getting a voice for creators and hosting something like this is a great way to sort of meet the people making the decisions, talk to people about what they’re expecting, talk to people about what’s happening and also bring people together and hopefully have some productive conversations instead of what you often see online, which can be a bit of a shouting match, unfortunately.

KENNEALLY: Well, indeed, and so we should tell people a little bit about the kind of program we’re going to be having for OnCopyright 2014. This is a continuing series of programs that occur every two years that Copyright Clearance Center has hosted. This is for the first time at the New York Academy of Sciences in Manhattan, a great venue, and so we’re going to be bringing together, as you say, lots of people who are involved in these questions, but give us an idea of the flow of the day and how people should feel. This is not just your average copyright law conference.

LEVINE: No, one thing that’s exciting about this is it’s not a pure business conference and it’s not a pure law conference. It’s sort of where licensing meets law, I guess you could say. And what’s interesting about that is you have a lot of legal conferences, which are interesting. Most of them are for CLE credit, so they’re very much aimed at practicing attorneys. That’s great for them, but for the rest of us, it can be a bit tough and even (break in audio) particular business it can be a bit tricky. Business conferences often focus on one particular business and they sometimes ignore the context. There are some great music conferences, some great film conferences, but you don’t get a sense of the whole world of copyright, like what’s the legal backdrop or context this is all taking place in. OnCopyright gives you that.

As far as the flow, one of the things I tried to think about a lot as I was thinking about this as I’m hosting it is we’re now at a stage where the argument over should artists get paid is settling down. There’s some people fighting it out, but it’s pretty much settled down. Artists should get paid. Courts recognize that. Some very clear decisions, some not so clear decisions, but there’s an emerging consensus that hey, the same old laws apply on the Internet too. Now the question is, how much should creators get paid and by whom?

So you hear a lot of arguing over is Spotify fair? Is YouTube fair? What kinds of systems are fair? And people find this very frustrating, as anyone would. If there’s people arguing about how much to pay you the money you need to live, it’s obviously frustrating, but I think it’s a tremendous step forward from the conversation around Grokster, which is hey, do we need to pay these people at all?

This is negotiation. Thom Yorke and David Byrne have said they don’t like Spotify and Spotify has responded to them indirectly with a slightly higher level of transparency. You may agree with them. You may think they’re wrong, but this is negotiation. It’s negotiation in public, which is different from negotiation around a negotiating table or negotiation in a court, but it’s negotiation, and that’s what business is based. Business is based on negotiation. You can only have a negotiation if you know what your rights are.

Before there was a lot of problems with clarity about who had what rights and how they applied online. That’s starting to settle down and we’re moving into the stage of negotiation. It’s moving slower than everyone would like. Some people are paying more than they want to. Other people are making less than they want to, but that’s true of business in general. Every job I’ve ever done I feel like I didn’t get quite as much as I wanted. This is a familiar feeling for a lot of you. That said, I often got more than I absolutely needed, but you’re starting to see the Internet move into the normal realm of commerce, which I think is a great thing.

KENNEALLY: Well, the notion of negotiation, I think, is a really interesting one, because it’s rather like going into peace negotiations. You don’t make peace with your friends. You have to do it with your enemies and so here we’re not talking enemies per se, but certainly groups and individuals who are on very different sides of the argument and this is an opportunity not to negotiate business terms, which you would do in private, but to kind of negotiate around the ideas, to help people understand the nuances.

LEVINE: What some people call the copy fight, I think I’ve gone on record as calling the most pretentious disagreement in the history of the world, because you have a lot of tech companies saying people need free access to books. What they really mean is we don’t want to pay so much for the goods we’re selling. You have a lot of writers saying these are my absolute rights, which is another way of saying we want to get paid more for what we’re selling.

Any supplier of goods in the world wants to make more for what they’re selling. Any seller of goods wants to pay less so that they can make more of a profit. There are – I don’t mean to minimize legitimate legal arguments, important arguments about conflicting rights, but it’s important to remember that whatever these important issues, and they are very important, no one in this debate has ever acted against their own interests.

All the tech companies that talk about access to knowledge as a human right, their businesses benefit from looser copyright. All the media businesses talking about the importance of having strong copyright, their businesses benefit from strong copyright. Even me, and I think I’m pretty fair, I wrote a book of journalism, not a book of advocacy. Obviously I benefit from strong copyright. I make my living on it. I don’t want as long as a copyright as the law gives me. I would want wider fair use than the law allows, but I certainly want my rights enforced. And it just – as esoteric and abstract as these issues can be, and they’re very important – I don’t want to minimize that – it does come down to hey, you know, we’re on opposite sides of the table.

The guy who’s distributing my book wants a better price for him, meaning a lower price. I want a better price for me, meaning a higher price.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. And you know, Rob, in your background, you were executive editor at Billboard magazine and you think about putting together a program like this rather like an editor thinks about putting together a magazine. You want a lot of different kind of material there, of varying lengths, varying tone and so forth, because it makes for a satisfying entire read rather than sort of being concerned about one single article or one single feature.

LEVINE: That’s how I approached it. I’m not – we’ll see – I think it’s a good way to approach it. When you put together a magazine, you want some hors d’oeuvres in front, something to sort of whet your appetite – you know, front of the book pieces. You want some meaty features, something you’ll learn from. You come away from it smarter than you went into it and you want some things that are amusing, some cartoons if it’s The New Yorker, some humor pieces, some record reviews, something lighter and I tried to do this the same way.

We’re going to have a performer who writes a song a day. We’re going to have Marc Ribot, who’s a very serious, accomplished musician in jazz and rock who’s played on all sorts of albums. We’re going to have Rick Cotton, who’s a top lawyer at NBC Universal and we’re going to have people talking about innovation in online businesses. You want a little of everything, not only in terms of hearing from different people. You want a mix between deeply serious and informative but amusing. You want a mix between not only points of view but sort of how it’s expressed. Some of it’s going to be a lot of people trying to find a constructive solution. Some of it’s going to be more of a debate and obviously some people are going to come for part of the day and I certainly hope that works. It’s designed to work, but my hope is that people will stay for half a day or the whole day and will get a bit of everything and find the whole more satisfying than the sum of its part.

KENNEALLY: Well, and you mentioned earlier regarding the technology companies and their point of view. They’re reasonably well-represented here. We’ve got Patrick Sullivan, who is a strategic development partner for Google, for example, who will be joining a panel that will also feature Katharine Zaleski, who is managing editor of NowThis News, which is a news online startup and also joining them is Jeff Jarvis, a professor at CUNY and author of several books on the Internet and journalism, as well as blogging at BuzzMachine, so this is a really varied group of people who are really the highest quality type of panelists you would want to have.

LEVINE: I think so and I’m biased, but I think so. And I think when – it’s obviously OnCopyright. It’s not On Giving Things Away, so I think there’s an inherent bias towards some kind of commerce, but you can’t have commerce with only one side. If creators and their representatives want to sell things for the highest price possible, they’re not going to find any buyers. You don’t have commerce that way. Commerce only happens when you have buyers and sellers. In this case they’re really wholesalers and retailers, I guess, right? You don’t have many end users here. I think you’ll have some. I hope we’ll have some, but you mostly have wholesalers and retailers, because you can’t have only one group. Then it’s not a conference. Then it’s a cheering section. There are some of those and that’s useful sometimes. But what I like about OnCopyright is it is where law meets business. It’s not about copyright as an abstract concept, which is fascinating. It’s about copyright as it becomes a business. These are a series of rights that are marketable, licensable, sellable. That’s the wonderful thing about copyright. It’s also the complicated thing about copyright, but this day is an opportunity to talk about how do these rights turn into business, not only in one way but in a lot of ways.

KENNEALLY: Right and you know, Rob, you were the keynote speaker for the very last OnCopyright in 2012 and this is definitely a dynamic part of the media business and part of the law as well. A lot has changed in just the last two years.

LEVINE: Oh yeah and I think what’s interesting about it is on the one hand, things seem to change so slowly because people have some of the same frustrations. Technology companies want better adaption, quicker decisions, better licensing terms. Creators want to get paid more and they want more clarity about who, when and how that payment’s going to happen. I’m certainly one of those people on some days, but what’s – if you look at it day to day, there are those frustrations. If you look at it from the top down as you can do if this is an every other year event, you see wow, a lot has changed.

There’s a lot less talk about antipiracy. Piracy is obviously still with us. It’s not changing, but you’re starting to see it die down as an obsession. Part of that is because there’s different kinds of legitimate offers like Netflix, like Spotify. Part of it is because we have a level of enforcement that keeps piracy inconvenient – certainly not impossible, but inconvenient – and that helps those legitimate offers gain traction and I think OnCopyright over the years – I haven’t been to all of them, but I think it’s become increasingly focused on the practical. It’s not about are you going to get paid, as I said. It’s about who’s going to get paid? What’s the strategy for sort of dividing up that money? What’s the best way to do that? The most fair? The most efficient? The most market-maximizing? And you really see I think an increasing turn toward that.

There is more and more agreement. There’s still disagreement, but there is more and more agreement.

KENNEALLY: Well, Rob, you mentioned the practical. Let’s remind people about some of the practical aspects of all this. It takes place again on Wednesday, April 2nd at the New York Academy of Sciences down at 7 World Trade Center. It’s a full day, as you mentioned, starting up at 9:00AM and going through 4:30, with a reception to follow. You can register online on our website and learn a lot more about the program at oncopyright2014.com and Rob Levine, we’ll also link from this podcast to your keynote for the previous OnCopyright 2012, which I think gives people an even better idea of your point of view and I think also will provide some good humor and some interesting background on these issues.

So finally, Rob, if I were a member of the public who wanted to join us from whatever side of the argument, they’re going to come away from OnCopyright 2014 with a better appreciation not only of the opposite side of the table, but probably a better understanding of their own opinions.

LEVINE: I hope so. That’s one of the things we want to do. I mean, a lot of people come to these events with a pretty strong set of ideas – this is what I believe and why. I don’t think a good event is sort of sticking it in their face that they’re wrong, but we hope to have people reexamine a bit of what they believe and walk away with a bit more knowledge about it, a bit more background in it, challenged a bit, refreshed a bit.

And I think it’s designed so that hey, if you’re dealing with mostly the legal side of licensing, we have a great speaker on pricing, how to price digital goods. It’s very different from pricing physical goods. If you’re coming from the business side, we have a debate – a great debate over the proper boundaries of fair use. The Beastie Boys have a case against GoldieBlox, which used their song “Girls” in a commercial that ran mostly online. We have sort of a “moot court case” that’s like a mock court case, if you will, that’s going to debate that, and obviously that’s a cool case and it’s interesting. I hope it’s amusing. We’ve got two great attorneys doing that, John Strohm, who was a musician with the Blake Babies before he became an attorney at Loeb & Loeb, Christopher Sprigman, who’s a law professor at NYU. They’re going to argue this out, but the goal of arguing it out is to show people hey, here’s how this turns into a business. You license it. Here’s how this turns into a business. You don’t have to license it. What are the boundaries of that?

If you’re a businessperson, my hope is that you leave knowing a bit more about the law than you started. You’re not going to come away with a law degree. It’s not a CLE credit kind of a crowd, but you’re going to learn a little more. If you’re a law person, you’re going to learn a bit more about pricing, so we hope that people on one side get a bit of the other side. We hope that people on both sides sort of enrich their thinking and I think it’s a good event in that way because some events about copyrights are very much put on as a show. We’re going to argue this out to prove something to the audience, to prove that we’re right. Here what we want to do is debate things to try to – so the audience can come away knowing more, not just with more opinion, but with more knowledge.

KENNEALLY: Well, it’s a terrific ambition, Rob Levine, and I’m looking forward to the day. We’ll be joining you there and hope everyone listening online can check out all of the details on OnCopyright2014.com and if you’re in New York for April 2nd and can join us, we look forward to welcoming you there. Rob Levine, host of OnCopyright 2014, author of Free Ride and a journalist based in New York and Berlin, thanks so much for joining us today.

LEVINE: Thank you.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs, as well as images, movies and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, find us on Facebook and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website, beyondthebook.com. Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.