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28 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 2011
I started Robert Levine's "Free Ride" with a deeply skeptical mindset. As someone who has followed the topics of digital innovation, the digital economy, and piracy in the news and blogosphere, I tend to be wary of anything that really amounts to obsolete companies trying to preserve an advantage through regulatory and legal means in the face of technological innovation.

This is why I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It's a fascinating history of the rise of digital piracy as it affected (and affects) the major "content" businesses (Music, Newspapers, Publishing, Television, and Film), and particularly the divide between the digital technology companies (such as Google) and the content industries. Quite often, I finished a chapter of the book much more sympathetic to these businesses than I had been before, particularly when Levine really delves into the economics of the "content" businesses and the piracy affecting them. While I don't entirely agree with him (at times, I think he's a little too wed to the idea of keeping the content businesses large and stable), I strongly recommend this book to any interested in these topics.

Levine focuses on those five main "content" businesses, but the real heart of the book (the most researched and detailed, including Levine's proposal for dealing with piracy) lie in the sections about the Music Industry. He goes into great detail about how digital piracy unfolded on the industry in the form of Napster, File-Sharing, and Digital Lockers, and how the Music Industry reacted to these changes (and the proliferation of digital technology plus the web). Particularly interesting to me was his writings on the economics of the Music Industry and each method of distributing music (such as CD Albums versus iTunes singles), as well as the details about the rise and fall of Napster in the late 1990s.

It is from the Music Industry that Levine also draws his proposal for resolving the issue of getting rights-holders paid for the use of their content on the web: "Blanket Licenses", or the right for people to use all the music they want as long as they pay for the license to an organization that then distributes the revenue (or if they subscribe to services that do this). He points out that this is already a system in place for paying songwriters and music publishing, and that several European telecoms/Internet Service Providers (such as TDC in the Netherlands). There is increasing support for it in continental Europe, although the US music industry continues to be wary.

This is not to dismiss the rest of the book. Levine also delves quite well into how e-books are changing the Publishing Industry, mostly in the context of the conflict between tech companies that want to sell book-reading devices using books as a "loss leader", and the actual publishing companies that are afraid that this "loss leading" will destroy any other retailers who can't afford to take a loss on book sales to sell physical readers. He makes a very convincing argument that it was foolish for newspapers to put all their articles online for free, instead of reserving most of them for subscribers (particularly the more profitable "print" subscribers that usually account for more than 90% of a newspaper's revenue). Levine points out that Online Video is a major threat to cable television, the heart of the modern television business (their reaction is "TV Everywhere", allowing anyone with a cable subscription to watch television shows and movies on any devices they own). And quite frequently, Levine points out the divide between the technology companies that have benefited from a "free web" that permits piracy (such as Youtube getting popular on the back of pirated video content that users post), and the content providers hurt by this. A great deal of his anger is particularly reserved for Google, which has been a major player in dampening efforts to strengthen copyright enforcement online.

That is not to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Levine on these issues. His chapters on the newspaper business are very convincing, and I'm much more sympathetic to the television and music businesses after reading this book. Nonetheless, I think Levine has a bias towards high-priced, professional content output, such as high-priced shows on cable subscriptions. There are several points in the book where he's dismissive towards amateurs and "hobbyists", and I get the impression that he would gladly make the trade-off of higher cable prices for higher-priced (and presumably better) content such as "Mad Men". That's a fair opinion, but it's like complaints about how the quality of air travel degraded after de-regulation allowed cheaper airfare prices in the US: quality was lost, but far more people had access and the ability to enter the market. It's important not to get too wedded to the present state of the "content" market, fears about a "twenty-first century economy with a seventeeth-century content business" aside.

Despite some of my disagreements with Levine, I DO wholeheartedly recommend that you read this book. It's an excellent piece, both readable and well-supported, from a perspective that tends to be dismissed as entirely self-serving and "luddite" in the debates over digital piracy.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 2011
It isn't abundantly clear to me who Levine's target audience is with a book like this. It seemed at first that the book was aimed at the digital generation, since they'd be the ones most likely to read a book like this. How many people who aren't Internet-savvy are going to read a book about the new forms of media distribution and how it impacts the creation of art and culture? Cracking the book open, however, suggests that it's for non-technical audiences; Levine consistently stays away from any type of technical language, which leads me to believe that this is meant to be a mass-market book. I could be wrong on this, but overall, I get the impression that this isn't a book for Millennials, but rather a book for informing the older generations on what's happening with media distribution today.

The problem with this, if I am in fact correct in that impression, is that the older generations already understand how and why old ideas relating to media distribution work. This book attempts to dispel some of the present-day notions relating to information distribution in the Internet Age, which means that it would be most purposeful if it were read by the Internet Generation; they're the ones who might find the ideas in this book eye-opening. Pre-Generation X readers will probably find little to surprise them here.

However, if the reviews here on Amazon are any indication, it seems that the Internet Generation is reading this book after all, which is probably a good thing. All of this being said, then, let me try to summarize the intent of this book. Quite simply, Free Ride is a call to return to common-sense thinking, flying directly in the face of all the assumptions that the market seems to have made about media on the Internet. People who spend hours of their spare time on the Internet every day are NOT likely to agree with the core points of this book, but if they keep an open mind when reading, they may just come to a better understanding of how "the other side" in the battle for new media thinks.

Levine thoroughly picks apart one of the key fallacies of the Internet Age: the idea that "information wants to be free." Levine observes--and quite rightly so--that proponents of the Information Age have made a critical oversight by wholeheartedly adopting two incompatible tenets: First, they have settled on the idea that information is the most valuable commodity in the world today. Though it lacks physical substance, information, the digerati will tell you, is worth more than physical goods such as wheat, steel, timber, and so on. Secondly, they have embraced the idea that "free is the new black." That is to say, all this information should be given away for free.

Anyone with any ounce of sense should immediately recognize that these ideas are incompatible with each other. If the Information Age is trading in information, what good does it do to give away your only valuable commodity for free? The idea that a viable business model can be based on giving information away for free is only adopted by companies such as Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, and so on--companies which make most or all of their revenue on advertising. In doing this, these companies have utterly devalued the cultural production of "real art" by making music, text, and visual media freely available to the world, but making money by cluttering that media with advertising. In other words, adertising is regarding as the only "information" of any value; everything else--the actual content--becomes worthless filler. This is an atrocious inversion of cultural values, and Levine's objection to the devaluation of culture is palpable.

Free Ride follows a familiar formula: Like most books of this type, it spends most of its pages laying out its case, stating facts to back up its claims. The book's subtitle speaks to "How the culture business can fight back," but perhaps predictably, the actual sections advocating some type of action are compressed toward the end of the book, almost as an afterthought. This part is where things get really interesting, however, as Levine's ideas about solutions are positively antithetical to the current Internet media model. If new media geeks find Levine's premises doubtful, they'll absolutely howl when they read Levine advocating government intervention in how the Internet spreads information. Writing about the Internet in Europe, Levine notes that government legislation is effective in controlling what can be accessed on the Internet: Levine relates amusing anecdotes of how large Internet portals trotted out their usual lines about how regulating the Internet restricts freedom of expression and "the Internet can't be regulated anyway," until European governments passed federal laws requiring Internet sites to restrict traffic to certain countries, at which point the Internet portals magically discovered that they can regulate the Internet after all. Lest we forget, let me remind you that Google, Yahoo!, MSN, and similar online portals make nearly all of their revenue on advertising. They have no interest in providing quality information to readers; like any other large media organization, they simply want to provide something simple and entertaining so they can get people to keep viewing their ads. That's not a sound basis for the generation of meaningful cultural media.

Levine is no fool; he knows fully well that most people won't pay for something they can get for free, and he's not afraid to advocate strong controls on the Internet to cut down on piracy. People who lack any understanding of politics and companies which make money from advertising on the Internet are always quick to provide a knee-jerk reaction to such ideas, insisting that their rights and freedoms are being violated, but Levine's obviously smart enough to see through this empty rhetoric. This takes me back to my original point: If people of the older generations read Free Ride, they'll fully understand how and why the government regulates the flow of information; their only question will be why such hasn't been done sooner. The under-30 crowd, however, will quickly take to reddit or Facebook and insist that Levine is one of the most evil and dangerous writers of our current era. None of the ideas in this book are new; the book is obviously biased toward implementing stronger controls on the Internet, and while this position is not "wrong," Internet people are so brainwashed into thinking that old media-distribution channels are "obsolete" that I doubt even a book full of well-researched and compellingly-presented information such as this could convince them. Don't get me wrong; I don't like the idea of policing the Internet myself, but given how utterly rampant piracy is, Levine's really just telling us all what we should already know: A game in which everything is given away for free can only last for so long before it all collapses. If anyone doubts this idea in the slightest, they may find food for thought in Free Ride, but as a resource for new ideas or non-partisan perspectives on a hotly-debated topic, Free Ride doesn't really have much to offer. Worth a read for anyone who's unfamiliar with the issue or who wants to read a rebuttal to the "information wants to be free" sheep, but if you're thoroughly convinced that your e-business of downloading torrents is going to make you a millionaire, you should probably just put your headphones back on and go on pretending that everyone believes what you do.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 5, 2012
I never thought a book about copyright would be fun to read, but Free Ride is a terrific book. Levine takes an issue that has been way oversimplified (bad Hollywood/rich artists v. internet freedom) and shows the reader there's a lot more to the story. While not overstating his case--he concedes some copyright reform is needed--he makes a strong argument that digital piracy is immoral, unethical, and a threat to future creativity. If artists can't make money off their works, Levine argues, it's very reasonable to assume they'll produce a lot less.

As an aside, I'd be interested to know what Mr.Levine thinks about SOPA. In any case, I recommend Free Ride.
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2011
A few years back I used to teach an undergraduate class at an Australian University where I required students to read a lot of Lessig and Doctorow's commentary on copyright and culture. I was so into that philosophy of intellectual property that I thought it was amazingly cool when Lessig was played by Christopher Lloyd on an episode of the West Wing.

One of the things that surprised me in this book was that what I'd once seen as a battle between a rebel alliance of copyleft freedom fighters on one side and monopolistic capitalist dinosaurs on the other was substantially more complicated.

The author explores and documents why technology and communications companies (the finger is generally pointed at Google) strongly advocate against enforcement of copyright (that is that they agree in general that creators should be compensated, but lobby against enforcement of copyright law). I found author was unnecessarily critical of Lessig in particular (I don't think Lessig is pushing any barrow other than his own even though groups he is involved with have been blessed by Google's beneficence), but that the author's general argument about why certain big companies were willing to support groups like the EFF and other anti-copyright enforcement advocacy groups does seem to hold water.

It boils down to reasoning coming along the lines of "the killer app for the Internet is piracy" and that many technology companies would incur a substantial cost if they had to strictly police copyright infringement. That it can be reasonably argued that services like the old Napster, BitTorrent, and File Locker sites indirectly drive profit in the technology industry whilst reducing profit in the "creation of culture" industry (hence the use of parasite in the book's title). The author isn't claiming that techn companies make money directly out of piracy itself, but that stamping down on infringement would certainly be a substantial operating expense and there is no benefit in one ISP coming down on users for downloading stuff when they'll just move to another ISP that has a more laid back attitude.

The book explores the "find a different business model" arguments that anti-copyright enforcement advocacy groups suggest that in theory would allow content creators to make a dime whilst giving away that content for free. However it turns out that if there is a different business model, it doesn't work except in a few edge cases. The author suggests that some sort of blanket license fee might work (such as is being trialed at certain ISPs in Denmark). The author also admits that a substantial number of people still believe that creators can make a good income giving their product away for free (and that the ones that can't simply aren't being creative enough and should be a bit more inventive) and that as long as that belief persists, consumers who are used to "free" will feel little compunction topay directly for digital content.
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13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
I bought this book on a whim and was worried I wouldn't find it all that interesting (A book on copyrights?), but I was wrong. This is a fascinating read on a topic that we all should care about. Robert Levine does a fantastic job in this book of explaining the issue. It's a complex topic with vested interests on all sides. I particularly enjoyed the way he showed how the interests of the big technology companies (like Google) doesn't necessarily benefit the rest of us. I think these technology companies have brought us tremendous benefit, but Levine does a good job of showing that there are great risks to our culture as well.

Levine paints a scary picture for those of us who care about the cultural production of journalists, writers, actors, musicians, and other creatives. He is obviously very biased towards protection and I don't agree with everything he says. However, he does a fantastic job of painting the issues, especially for those of us like me who haven't really followed the debate. His writing is very good and compelling.

This book made me think and it did bring me a little closer to the author's viewpoint. I have a vastly improved view of the issues from having read it. Thumbs up and strongly recommended.

He covers:

The Online Free-for-All
How Congress Created YouTube - and Media's Big Problem
Facing the Music: How the Internet Devastated the Music Business
Geeks Bearing Gifts: Google's War on Copyright
The Siren Song of "Free": Why Newspapers Struggled Online
The Revolution May Not Be Televised: How the Internet Could Kill Mad Men
Books or Kindle-ing? How Technology Could Turn the Page on Publishing
Moving Pictures: Can Hollywood Conquer the Cloud?
Disquiet on the European Front: Why France Favors Art Over the Internet
Blanket Protection: Turning Copyright into Copyrisk
The Future of the Future: Commerce or Chaos?
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15 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 2011
I've worked in book and magazine publishing (including self-publishing) for almost 30 years. For the past several, I've spent a lot of energy trying to convince new self-publishers that piracy and overly large promotional giveaways merely create or reinforce reader expectations that everything will be free, undermining not only those publishers' own businesses but others. I've also spent a great deal of energy explaining to readers that it typically takes several years to write a book, and that writers need to pay for their groceries just like readers do. Also that publishers provide valuable services to writers, including editing, proofreading, book design, page layout, indexing, marketing, and more; and that the publisher also has overhead to run the business. The common alternative is self-publication of inferior books (because most writers do not have the skills to do all publishing tasks at a professional level) or the writer paying freelancers (which doesn't make the book any cheaper for readers than if it had been "traditionally" published). Retailers (online and off) also provide valuable services: Although readers technically can browse all over the net looking for self-published books, fact is, they don't bother. But they may well find the book at some venue such as Amazon--who does deserve payment for making the book much more accessible to readers.

I'm also often frustrated by the way people who want free books speak almost entirely in the same old slogans, such as "information should be free," "if you can't make money giving it away, you're outmoded and need a new business model," and so forth. Robert Levine, author of Free Ride, does a good job of examining the sources of these slogans--they often emanate from large companies that make a great deal of money selling ads next to other people's pirated and/or giveaway works. He explodes the illusion that numerous companies (which he names) whose businesses are funded this way are actually operating in consumers' interests.

I do disagree with Levine's suggestion that a good solution to the problem of making money off the net is blanket licenses, where consumers pay a flat fee to an ISP (or some other company) for unlimited downloads. Not all works cost the same amount of time or money to produce, nor do they all have inherent audiences of the same size. I believe that scholarly works with limited audiences, and the like, are at least as culturally valuable as the latest beach novel, but blanket licenses tend to reward pop culture to the detriment of everything else. Also, before recommending collecting agencies (in addition to blanket licenses), Levine really should have researched how these work in countries where they are more widely used. Writers in these countries have told me that the collecting agencies (of course) cost money to run, and once they get their cut, the writer sees very little of the money collected. I am not against middlemen: The publishing industry needs them. But I don't see any point in adding unnecessary middlemen to the chain that already exists.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 20, 2013
The book is well researched and written, the culture business cannot continue to profit from "traditional" models, and there aren't many great solutions to provide content to consumers on the internet that both consumers and content creators benefit from.

However I was frustrated during the first few chapters of the book; I felt like the author was venting against the internet, pirates, and YouTube. The Internet has provided the best distribution method (for consumers) to date for multimedia, and pirates discovered this far faster than the content industry. If Netflix & Hulu preceded mainstream file sharing I wonder how many movies would be downloaded against copyright?
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12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on December 19, 2011
Copyright protection has undergone a sea change over the last decade or so. What was once considered philosophically and legally axiomatic - that creators should have control over and benefit financially from their work - has rapidly eroded. Nowadays, in most cases there is not that much practical protection for musicians, authors, and other creative content creators; and their associated industries have thereby lost influence, resources, and prestige. Most popular legal argument cheers this erosion along, offering various self-serving justifications for it (e.g., that it's progress; that creators' business should change; that creators' work is of poor quality; that piracy actually helps creators' business, etc.).

This book stands as a rare counterbalance to the pro-piracy chorus. It's obviously frustrating to be on the dissenting side of one of these trans-national cultural movements, but the author is able to make his case in a way that is nonetheless entertaining and insightful. He deftly meshes solid legal analysis with neat stories.

The strongest part of the book is unquestionably his detailed analysis of the effect of copyright erosion generally, and specifically on the music industry. Indeed, the analysis here is far and away the best I have seen. Levine goes back to the Statute of Anne, and carefully traces several key cases, including Acuff-Rose, Sony, the extension acts, and so on, since. His legal analysis is spot on and accurate, and I was frankly quite surprised that he was not a lawyer. (Perhaps he ought to have pointed out that all most material is in fact copyrighted at the time of creation - sometimes he seems to use "copyright" for "registered copyright" in a few places, as when he talks about the percentage of copyrighted material among some network, but this is minor).

He has a terrific historical analysis of the history of copy protection, attempts to copy protect CDs, and various failed industry standards. His treatment of the Metallica stance on copyright is superb if poignant. He carefully and accurately traces through things like Napster, Kazaa, and later iTunes, and the effect of all these on revenues. Overall, these chapters are certainly worth the price of the book.

His discussion of film and movie piracy is also careful and persuasive. He also has a very good overview of book publishing economics and why, for example, Kindles are not quite the boon to authors that Kindle owners like to pontificate about.

I did disagree with the author in a couple of places. First, I felt he made too big a deal about Boxee, some sort of television device I'd never heard of. (The author likewise doesn't discuss the possibility of desktop computers replacing TVs - only mentioning laptops, tablets, etc.).

Second, I felt Levine's treatment of Google Books was unfair. Levine correctly notes that some publishers and authors objected because they might want to reprint books that are currently out-of-print. But Levine ignores the fact that these authors could easily opt out of Google Books if they wanted to. Levine also ignores the problem of "orphan books", where copyright is hard to ascertain and the owners don't care enough to bargain, which requires an opt-out system for Google Books to work. Levine cites the argument that Google Books should be disallowed from becoming a full library because doing so could prevent other companies like Microsoft from making a similar effort. But the companies leading the charge against Google Books have no intention of making such a project, nor will they ever. It seems odd to prevent Google from doing something with the argument that if Google succeeds, other companies won't in the future.

One interesting point, by the way, that the book glossed over was how often antitrust considerations prevented the many relatively small content creation businesses or artists from joining together effectively to promulgate new standards or new partnerships. With the very loose confederations that are less likely to raise antitrust issues, it is extremely difficult to get the buy-in from the production and distribution chain required to make the standard effective.

Still, overall the book is fun, it's entertaining, it's accurate, and it's fair.
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2011
I like books that give me a historical perspective on a topic and carry that topic into the future. Free Ride does exactly this. It traces the idea of copyright from its origin to the present and gives an outlook on what could happen, if it was to vanish in the world of the internet. The narrative is spiced up with interesting historical and present examples and characters. I also like the fact that the book does not only focus on the US, but that it presents English, Swedish, German or French examples how to deal with content on the internet - and that it presents possible solutions. Finally I was impressed and shocked by the chapter on Googles power network, especially its ties into academia and politics. I recommend this book to everybody who is interested in the future of our culture business.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 27, 2013
So happy the author Robert Levine has peeled back the onion on this subject . . . America (and the world) is experiencing a crushing cultural change - digital parasites are everywhere! Read this volume to find out why . . . recommend.
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