Chris Ruen talks about Freeloading

However, is Metallica any less popular than they would be otherwise? Are they really making less money if they hadn't said anything? I actually don't think so. They had a huge concert at South by Southwest, which got a ton of media hype and attention and people seemed really excited about it. And David Lowery, he talks about the fact that when he started speaking out on these issues, his Facebook likes didn't start going down, there was no metric that showed that his popularity went down. So I actually think people's impressions are a little bit different than the reality that you'll be hurt if you speak out about these issues, and unfortunately that culture of fear was really the legacy of Metallica standing up.

But what artists are finding now, I believe, is it's okay to be honest with their fans and to say what they think about whether piracy is right or wrong, or just the fact that they're struggling and they do need the support. So the big thing I talk about in the book is the RIAA [the Recording Industry Association of America] lawsuit. I think what you're seeing now, with artists becoming a little more comfortable, would have happened maybe four years ago if not for those lawsuits ... but the RIAA lawsuits? They just made it sort of impossible from a PR perspective for artists to say anything nice about their record label and that's unfortunate because once again, the artist is deciding to sign with that record label, so there is this reality that labels are helping the artists and the artists are choosing to partner with them.

People want to separate the artists from the label and say 'I want to hurt the record label but I want to help that artist,' as if that's so easy. Those lawsuits made it very difficult for that distinction to be made and very frankly, it's a subtle distinction, but it's still one that troubles the entire discussion because the difficult thing with this is that you really have to look at people's actions, and not their words. To see that record labels, publishers, and movie studios wouldn't exist if artists didn't sign with them.

In your book, you wrote, "A growing class of consumers, spearheaded by my own generation, had been duped into believing that if it feels good to download your digital content for free, then it must be good. It was somehow, the rest of the world's fault for not adapting to the noble practice. A new future was emerging; delirious, ominous, and liberated from timeworn social codes and responsibilities."

It's taken a long time, and the reasons I pointed out I think were major notes of the narrative. You can go back in history, and say things could have been different, they could have been better, but there's also the truth that this is a new technology. We're dealing with this new phenomenon of media and it is going to take time for us to come to terms with that. And you know a big reason why I wrote the book is the sense that 'Hey there is clarity out there on these issues and there is a way that we can, if we understand this technology,' sort of the Marshall McLuhan quote at the beginning of the book ... If you can understand what the technology is and what its biases are, then you kind of correct for the dangers and really harness it for the maximum good. And I think that's way more exciting of an idea, than ... I know I can get it for free, so I'm just going to do it and not really ask any questions about it. And of course that's the dominant culture ... basically if there's no enforcement going on and no opportunity for education on these issues, then well of course people are going to take stuff for free. It's not a complicated issue in that regard. But now we're faced with this problem of digging through the history that we have to hopefully correct history and resolve some of these things.

You quote (film critic) David Denby, writing that on the Internet, the way to silence somebody with a particular point of view is simply to call them a whiner, and that's the way arguments roll.

Now that's surprising to people, but at the time I was kind of shocked at the vitriol that was tossed back at me online. There's a section of the book where I dig into this stuff and note the fact that there are these dangers in anonymity and the lack of responsibility that we might feel to our words online, and the things that we say, and that in itself can intimidate people and essentially elbow out reasonable sort of middle ground communications on this stuff, because it doesn't get people riled up. I think there are corners of the Internet where it's all about reaction and it's all about your first emotional response and throwing that out there and then someone else throwing out an emotional response and when you get involved in those debates online ... [it's] like getting into an online argument where you don't know the person you're arguing with ... because it's all anonymous. You can imagine the worst in people, and imagine that if somebody doesn't agree with you they're stupid, they're every example of what's wrong with society, and you can just create your own picture of how terrible this person is and how much better than them you are. And the result of that is it's hard to hear differing opinions and come to some exchange of ideas ... people will go to that really angry side [which] is a reason why this debate has gone on as long as it has. I will say that I think Internet culture has changed slightly, I don't think it's quite as nasty as it was when I was writing the book, and some people now complain that people on Facebook are too nice to each other; it's kind of interesting how that culture changes too.

Let's talk about SOPA (Stop Online Privacy Act). A lot of people remember that was depicted as the Internet standing up to the corporations. You write that there was propaganda going on there, with "total villainy" on the part of rights holders and "total ineptitude on the part of Federal Judges." A lot of people didn't know the details, but they knew that the right side was to be with all the Internet companies, versus Hollywood studios and Congress. What went on there?

I think there were definitely some problems with SOPA. I don't think it was a perfect law, I didn't write it, so it's not something that I'm going to take responsibility for in any way. But what happened was ... I do think that people who backed the law didn't make an effort to educate the public on the issue, the underlying issues behind the law, so there was this dysfunctional sort of conversation and understanding in the public before the law was even introduced.

So they introduced the law, and this group Fight For the Future, which is a 501(c)4 — so you don't know who is giving them money — they were created the same month that SOPA was introduced into Congress, which is a little shady. They portrayed the bill as being all about web freedom and they called this a censorship bill. Now I get into this in some detail in the book, talking about this discussion around censorship and free speech ... they tried to portray it as though ... if you put one infringing link on Twitter, the government was going to shut down Twitter, or it was going to shut down Facebook, and these websites were going to be censored and blocked. Really the groups who spearheaded the rhetoric took great pains to not mention the words piracy, to not acknowledge the fact that there are thousands and thousands of artists out there whose work is being exploited by criminal third parties, and those were the underlying issues. If you read the bill it's fairly clear. A site like The Pirate Bay ... those were the sites the bill was trying to target. Foreign sites that to quote the bill are "dedicated to the infringement," and that language was based on ... this unanimous Supreme Court decision that struck down Grokster. So there was this legal basis behind it.

Now maybe it went too far. But what ever its ills were, those were not the reasons the bill failed. The bill failed because of the biases that people had against entertainment companies, which people just played up who wanted the bill to be stopped. And the Internet companies at that time were trusted by the public. I think that day of the blackout is going to be the zenith of public trust in Internet companies because after that it started to go down, so people were told it was a censorship bill and it was gonna be the equivalent of strangling puppies and shutting down everything they loved about the Internet.

Behind all of that was the reality that people wanted to get their shit for free and if this bill would have passed, that would have been less likely, and I do think it would have had some positive impact. So what I was saddened by ... is that the blackout and the propaganda behind it was really this case of an uneducated public being manipulated by huge huge corporations and again, it's an example of the kind of emotional quality of online communication where if there is an emotional idea that can be communicated very quickly, people can respond to that. They can do a Facebook like, they can click on a link, they can sign up for a quick petition if they're sufficiently freaked out. And the media at the time, I don't think journalists knew what to think about it at the time either. I don't think they understood it, so there wasn't really any back and forth, there was no middle ground discussion. And the result now is that major entertainment companies — from music industry, film industry, and legislators who are sympathetic to them — they're really scared. They were so shocked by that reaction ... they're afraid to say anything about it. They're afraid to put any new legislation out there, and I think that's really sad because there is a need for more enforcement for these ideas but there is a new culture of fear that's developed post-SOPA amongst the people with the power, the people who are actually working for those industries and lobbyists. Even the people who are actively talking about these issues, they don't want to talk about enforcement either. It's really interesting what's happened, but my view is it's inevitable. You do have to deal with the questions of: What do you do with Pirate Bay? How do you approach this?

Toward the second half of your book, you're crusading pretty aggressively that freeloading is immoral. Page 178: "To undercut respect for copyright or pretend that it no longer matters is an attack on all creators, from the poorest to the richest. And it is an attack on us." For the reader, they go through this journey with you, to where at the end you're passionately arguing how wrong this is.

My experience is I went through this myself, so when I talk about it, I see it in people when I discuss the issue. When you can break it down to, forget about Metallica, Napster, forget about the lawsuits, just acknowledge the fact that there is an artist out there who has risked years of their life — and years of the future and opportunity costs that they've expended — working on their art, they've put a tremendous amount of labor into what they've done, and is it okay that they have no access to a fair exchange for their work? Or shouldn't they have a choice to how their work is distributed? When you present that idea to people, most will say that's not fair, that's not okay, I don't support that.

The difficulty is getting it to that place where you're acknowledging as a fan 'Oh, there's an artist out there who's not just a faceless corporate unit.' They're a person out there, just like the fan is a person and they deserve to be treated with some modicum of fairness. I think that's a really important point that needs to be made and something that people do respond to. But there is a danger of being too moralistic or preachy to people. On the one hand, it is a moral issue, it is how we want to treat one another, but on the other hand, maybe you use a soft hand when speaking to individuals about their own actions.

But when you're talking about a website like the Pirate Bay, or Has It Leaked?, these sites that only exist for unlicensed, basically black market distribution and they're selling advertising, and in some cases charging subscription fees on the backs of artists, fans will say 'Oh, I'd pay for stuff if I think the artist is actually getting paid'... Do they think these pirate sites are paying the artist? There's no chance that the artist is getting paid by using those services, so I think you can take those people and really hang them out to dry. I fail to see the argument allowing a massive black market to just exist so conveniently as it has been. So I think then you can get very self-righteous, pretty safely, because there's really no argument for allowing them to do what they do. I don't know exactly what the solution should be, as far as enforcement, but I know the goal should be to marginalize those actors, and to choke them of money and I don't have a problem as long as the process is okay. I don't have a problem blocking those sites at all, just like I don't have a problem blocking a child porn website. It's the same issue of people's rights being violated, and just because you have some fanciful notion of technology, that doesn't excuse people in the real world getting screwed, and that it what this is about. And also from a cultural perspective. What kind of culture do we want to have? Do we want it to be diverse? Do we want to have a lot of different ideas coming, emerging from the margins and reaching an entire global population, and new voices having a chance to have careers, or don't we? That's the question that people need to ask themselves.

  • Chris Ruen

Brooklyn-based journalist Chris Ruen's Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Hunger for Free Content Starves Creativity (OR Books) looks at Internet piracy. As a 20-something writer and part-time barista, he got to know a handful of members from some of the most interesting bands of the 21st century (like TV On The Radio, Yeasayer and Vampire Weekend), and his attitude toward copping music for free on the Internet began to change.

Earlier this month I spoke to Ruen on the telephone. Here's our conversation:

Mitch Perry: This issue of artists being upset about file sharing began with Metallica going after Napster back in 2000. Lars Ulrich was ripped to shreds for speaking out against free downloaded music. They're still very respected, but did being pioneers in saying 'we're not going to take this' hurt their career?

Chris Ruen: I think that addresses that aspect of the history, and digging into the arguments that were really being laid out is sort of the substance rather than the style, and is really crucial because when I was formally and informally doing research for the book, and also just talking to friends about it, I was surprised at how people would say to me 'Well, it's probably not right that people are pirating music and I also don't think it's cool that bands are against their fans or talk about suing their fans.' I'd ask what artists are you talking about? And they would say Metallica. So I could see that narrative really burned its way into people's consciousness of these issues, and the way that they frame them, and that was true for me too. You know when I was 19 and that stuff was going on, I think the whole generation internalized that narrative that this was about really rich artists and bands who really didn't need money, basically trying to ruin everybody else's good time, you know? When you look back at it ... obviously Lars Ulrich had his name dragged through the mud, and the reputation of Metallica took a huge hit.

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