Piracy Invades Privacy, Encourages Cyberbullying, and Creates a Thriving Artistic Culture
Or, Compassion for The Winnebago Man and Robert Levine
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[Note: as always, I am speaking only for myself, and not for my employers past or present.]

In “Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back” (excerpt here: http://www.billboard.biz/bbbiz/industry/legal-and-management/must-read-excerpt-from-robert-levine-s-free-1005463152.story), author Robert Levine’s thesis is that the quality of art and culture is in steep decline. As the Internet has turned analog dollars into digital pennies, art has become just a product meant to sell something else -- for anyone who joined the unwashed masses in watching the Lady Gaga Thanksgiving last night, you will understand this. Meanwhile, everyone can now create on platforms like YouTube, and they mostly create crap.

Levine also adds a political angle -- that this decline is the result of bad public policy. These bad policies are kept in place by Google -- and an army of intellectual and entrepreneurial voices who they have empowered -- in order to profit from “free riding.”

Everything Levine says is true. It is also utterly false.

To understand why, let’s first meet The Winnebago Man.

*

Jack Rebney is The Winnebago Man, aka The Angriest Man Alive (Winnebago Man). He entered the lives of millions through YouTube, as his curse-filled clips from the cutting room floor of a Winnebago commercial went viral. He entered the lives of thousands before that, due to the “found footage” movement, the pre-YouTube, pre-”Star Wars Kid” art community that found, distributed, and performed film that was never meant to be seen. After the shoot with Rebney, his coworkers made unauthorized copies of the discarded footage, gave those copies away, and from there thousands of people made pirate copies of the video before it ended up on YouTube, nearly 20 years later.

From this data alone, Rebney’s life has clearly been ruined by piracy. The release of the video online not only impinged on his privacy, but also was the epitome of cyberbullying, as millions laughed at this poor stranger. As media expert Doug Rushkoff explains, what we did to Rebney was the equivalent of “Roman-spectacle torture.” Or, as a Rebney fan later says at a film screening of the footage, it’s like a carnival freak show. And Rebney himself sees YouTube and its teeming masses as the decline of culture itself, caring about such trivialities as his video when they really should be caring about relevant issues like public policy.

Based on other data, we might see this story differently. The picture gets more complex. You get some of that other data in the 2009 documentary, “Winnebago Man.” (http://www.netflix.com/Movie/Winnebago-Man/70115866).

On the one hand, the harm of piracy seems even worse. Rebney was also fired after that Winnebago shoot, and retired to his Northern California hovel, where he remained alone, angry at the world, and eventually going blind from glaucoma. Forty years ago, when Rebney was an expert producer at CBS and worshipped Edward R. Murrow, this is not the fate anyone would have predicted for him.

On the other hand, you see the real Jack Rebney who is quite like the Jack Rebney in that found footage. He curses constantly, he yells at his only friends, and apparently he was always this way. He was having a particularly bad day during that shoot, but nothing out of character.

On the third hand, you see the real reason that many people love Rebney. When he comes to a film festival at the Red Vic about three blocks from my home in San Francisco, fans stand around the block to meet him because “he reminds [them] of grandpa” and “we’ve all been there” -- in that moment where you’re so frustrated you could just explode. Rebney cannot see his adoring fans, but when he is asked “Do you hate us?” he responds “No, I hate Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, who ruined our country” and the crowd applauds.

And Rebney says, “These are my people.”

*

Like Rebney, Levine is right to say that there is a lot that is ugly in our culture right now. That is true on American Idol and on YouTube.

But it would be absurd to say that, based on the Rebney history, piracy invades privacy and created cyberbullying. It would be equally absurd to say that, based on re-use of the found footage, piracy led to thriving art -- as Michael Cera, Alec Baldwin, and other in Hollywood profited from Rebney in countless parodies, and in fact the film was turned into a worldwide mash-up art phenomenon.

Instead, the world is more complex. It is easy to say that Dick Cheney ruined our country, or that culture is dead and piratical parasites are responsible. It is hard to accept that the truth is much more mushy.

When you step back and look at data as a whole, you might see progress. Quantitative evidence suggests that neither quantity (http://www.tc.umn.edu/~jwaldfog/pdfs/American_Pie_Waldfogel.pdf) nor quality (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1944001) of recorded music has declined since Napster. Indeed, there are more people creating art on more platforms for more people than ever before.

Much of the new art is crap. In fact, turfin' (TURF FEINZ "RIP RichD" YAK FILMS DANCING in the RAIN DANSE SOUS LA PLUIE HIPHOP STREET DANCE Oakland), jerkin' (The Ranger$ Jerkin in JerkVille.), and scraper bikes (Scraper Bikes on Built From Skratch) might not be 'art' to some people. That's fine; everybody has their own cup of tea, and we're lucky to live in a world where there's more tea and more types of tea brewing than ever before.

There are some, like Levine, who say that this 'low' art will be the decline of 'high' art. This is not a new argument. Biz Markie's sampling was considered stealing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Upright_Music,_Ltd._v._Warner_Bros._Records_Inc.), and after Public Enemy's brilliant “It Takes a Nation of Millions,” the record industry gutted sampling in commercial recordings, unless of course you look like Girl Talk or the Beastie Boys. Blues and soul were low art until they were coopted by Elvis. Elvis, The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones were all going to corrupt the youth of America. And Walter Benjamin said that the endless reproduction of the Mona Lisa would destroy us all.

As with those previous arguments, there is no way Levine can be proven right or wrong. One can only accept that long-term technological, economic, and societal progress is much more messy, there are more winners than losers but there are losers, and we need to have compassion for each other.

*

That brings me back to Levine’s disdain for Google, as the puppetmaster behind current public policy. As Evgeney Morozov puts it in his review of Levine’s book, “Levine's penchant for the conspiratorial – everything eventually leads to Google! – is a distraction that occasionally makes him sound like rightwing broadcaster Glenn Beck.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/aug/18/free-ride-robert-levine-review)

On the other hand, Levine is right. People like me do have a different view of the world; we do fund and support people who share our views; and we do try to sustain the laws that have allowed the Internet to flourish. We share a desire to mitigate the worst of the Net, but we recognize that sometimes you have to take the bad with the good, and that is not a problem that public policy should solve. We do this in part because we have a commercial interest, but that is only a part of it.

We also “free ride,” in a certain particular sense -- just as Bryan and Anderson didn’t pay the makers of Winnebago Man when they copied and retold parts of the story during their review of the film on The Film Vault podcast (http://tfvpodcast.wordpress.com/), we sometimes build on, transform, and re-use bits of information in ways that are socially beneficial. Sometimes free riding is an evil, but I wouldn’t say what Bryan and Anderson did in that movie review is piracy.

Levine and I will probably never agree, and there will never be a way of proving that one of of us is right. We can work to understand each other better, though, and have compassion.

When I read Levine or watch Jack Rebney, I see people who have been deeply hurt somehow. Rebney was a crazy hermit big thinking curse-hound long before that Winnebago shoot. It wasn’t YouTube that hurt him, although he does have a mix of disdain and nonchalance about all media (he repeatedly says that the people watching him on YouTube are “irrelevant”).

And by the same token I don’t think it is actually YouTube alone that hurt Levine. Something else made him so angry as to lash out at the way the world is changing; at people who in some cases have more power over that change than he does; and then to create a scapegoat in Google and wish for Roman-spectacle torture. When the world moves beneath your feet and your culture, that can be deeply scary, and that’s what’s happening to Levine.

But for whatever role we did play in hurting Levine, I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to. Life is messy. Progress is messy, too.
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