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"Free Ride" author urges realistic anti-piracy tactics

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The former editor of Billboard and New York Times alum, has written a must-read book. In "Free Ride," Levine examines how technology companies and other "digital parasites" are threatening the livelihood of those culture industries, particularly institutions like Warner Bros

NEW YORK : For anyone who follows the "culture" industries of film, television, publishing and newspapers, Robert Levine, the former editor of Billboard and New York Times alum, has written a must-read book. In "Free Ride," Levine examines how technology companies and other "digital parasites" are threatening the livelihood of those culture industries, particularly institutions like Warner Bros. and the New York Times, by offering content that they didn't make. Far from hating the Internet, Levine recognizes the failure of Hollywood studios and publishing houses to adapt to the irreversible rise of the digital world. However, he believes that the quality of our culture comes at a price -- a price that must be supported by charging for that content. TheWrap spoke with Levine, who lives in Berlin, about why Google may hate him and the future of the cloud-based licensing system Ultraviolet.

So why did you choose this as a topic?

Robert Levine: This is going to sound weird. I kept thinking that this is a really important subject so somebody really smart should write about it. A great writer should write about it -- and by great I mean someone with a background in economics or law, someone who has been a staff writer at the New Yorker for 20 years. No one did it, so I said I'll write it. This is not to say I'm one of those writers, but I tried to be. (The New York Times') David Carr writes on this subject every week.

What do you mean by that?

Levine: If you think about it as a narrative -- and it's a loose narrative -- it's this: The media business is a set of businesses, a group of people, a set of assumptions that is part of our culture. How is that being changed by the digital revolution? David is telling that story. He gets that it's a clash of mentalities as well as a clash of businesses.

And by the two businesses, you mean...

Levine: The technology business and media business. I think the media business is always a very ... there's always a bit of unicorn dust in it. If you think about the music business, it is always trying to package an artist as a bit of a myth. Movies have always had pixie dust. Even the magazine business is about buzz. The Internet is just about numbers. Magazine ads are about parties, fashion and fun. Google ads are about metrics: Is this scalable? What stage of funding? Everything is quantitative. The media business is such a qualitative business. But at the same time those businesses have more in common than they'd like to admit. The tech business has a lot in common with entertainment from years ago -- brash entrepreneurs who were not afraid to break rules with an immigrant despite not being immigrants.

So, about Google: You devote a whole chapter to them in your book, and it's not the most flattering portrayal. Why focus so much on them and what is so offensive about what they do?

Levine: The third chapter is devoted to Google and (copyright reform activist) Lawrence Lessig. One reason is that it's very hard to tell a story if you've got 20 professors and 10 companies, so to some extent I tried to narrow it down a bit. But the other answer is that Google just looms so large over the Internet. It's so omnipresent that people almost don't realize its there. The extent to which they are everywhere in the debate is sort of spooky.

A couple of people have said, what do I have against them? Maybe that's my fault as a writer, but I don't have anything against them. Google is a fantastically successful company that makes some great products. They spend a lot of money to lobby and are extraordinarily effective at doing that. I don't think that's evil, I think that's business. What I did want to say is that Google influences the world in less obvious ways and you should know more about it.

Has Google improved its position on intellectual property this year?

Levine: Every few months Google will announce it's improving its anti-piracy practices. I think it's improving, but it usually makes these announcements when it's under pressure. The net result of that is usually good. I don't want to criticize them for doing something that's good. On the other hand, their reasons for doing it are to avoid further regulation. "Let's volunteer to do this so we won't have to do that."

Why does populist sentiment often side with the tech/telecom side rather than the "culture" side?

Levine: There is something about Hollywood that conveys offensive excess. You get the sense people in Hollywood are overpaid more than people in the technology business. The amount of money some people in Hollywood make is just absurd and indefensible. On the other hand, a lot of people in Silicon Valley make money that is absurd and indefensible, too. They just don't spend it in ways as grating on the American public.

      The stereotypical guy in Hollywood earns $15 million a year, has a Ferrari and mistresses. In Silicon Valley, he still drives a Prius and wears a denim shirt and chinos, so I guess he comes across as more likable and less threatening. But maybe that's not even true anymore.

Since you brought up Hollywood, let's transition to the film industry. Can Ultra violet solve a lot of its revenue problems?

Levine: I think it's a really fantastic idea. I don't know about the execution. Its debut was inauspicious, to say the least. People seem to have had a lot of problems with it. That's a bad sign. On the other hand, plenty of successful products got off to a bad start so well see what happens. What's interesting about UltraViolet specifically is how can you offer people something more than piracy -- and UltraViolet does that. UltraViolet offers you more portability than piracy does, but that only works if that's convenient. It remains to be seen how convenient it is.

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