I’m early for my interview with Chris Ruen, author of Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Hunger for Free Content Starves Creativity, and going over my notes at the bar. Eventually I circle one question from my list, the inquiry I kept penning into the margins of my review copy: why do people believe music should be free?
Ruen never thought about the ethics surrounding downloading until he was directly confronted with the reverberations of its impact. He got a job slinging coffee in his Brooklyn neighborhood and began serving many of the local artists that filled your iPod a decade ago. Up until that point, like most of us, he had never thought much about the ethics behind downloading. It wasn’t until he began hearing their stories, the inability of many popular musicians to make ends meet, that he began realizing the contours of the debate were completely skewed. “I pirated hundreds of songs during my college years,” he writes, “but I sensed disposability and devaluation infecting my relationship with music.”
Ruen’s book is a detailed look at his own personal relationship with the music industry, as well as an investigation into how and why our culture views the practice as it does. He interviews the very artists whose lives influenced his shift in thinking. “I don’t know why the angry armchair quarterbacks would pick this issue,” the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn tells Ruen, “…music is being separated from the rest of commerce.”
I open our conversation with exactly that sentiment: my circled question. “Wow,” he begins, and exhales, “It’s such a complicated question…”
Chris Ruen isn’t a millionaire rock star. He’s not an anti-transparency zealot. He knows everything you are going to say: all artists want their music heard; Jay-Z doesn’t need more money; the Internet has globalized our day-to-day music experience and it’s a good thing, etc. He’s not against people hearing new music or, even, people having access to free music. He just has a few problems, and a handful of concerns, and he wants you to listen.
Of course it’s great that so many different kinds of music are now readily available and people around the world can be readily exposed to them, but what about all the great bands who were forced to break up, over the course of the last decade, because they couldn’t afford to keep making music? Why do indie-rock fans, and websites, loudly celebrate Record Store Day, instead of simply encouraging people to buy more records? You vote with your dollar, the saying goes and, yet, the cliché holds no weight in the modern music industry.
... If we can agree that artists have legitimate rights to their own work, it follows that we have some duty as individuals and as a society to respect those rights".
Ruen believes the downloading phenomenon begins with an original sin and, subsequent, shoddy media analysis. “Napster wasn’t a company based upon revolution or innovation," he writes. "It was based upon opportunism, employing the legal protections of copyright when it suited them, ignoring them when it didn’t. The company wasn’t the band of young do-gooders some remember it as, but shrewd businessmen who sought to manipulate public opinion in order to expand their user base.”
This flawed vision of opportunistic revolutionaries continues to this day, “If we can agree that artists have legitimate rights to their own work," he says, "it follows that we have some duty as individuals and as a society to respect those rights—which means reasonable copyright enforcement. Online black markets, such as The Pirate Bay, deserve to be blacklisted.”
“SOPA/PIPA included a process by which such sites could be identified," Ruen continues, "as serving no significant purpose other than to facilitate freeloading; setting clear guidelines for ad networks, payment processors and search engines as to whom they should and should not be doing business with. I believe those provisions would have a hugely positive impact, without us having to block domain names or argue about censorship concerns. “
Record Store Day line at Manchester's Piccadilly Records, 2011/Phil King via Creative Commons
When I contact him later and ask him if he can talk a bit more about SOPA, upon its celebrated anniversary, he tells me, “In general I’m for any methods of marginalizing black market distributors so long as it isn’t interfering with legitimate uses of the Internet. The anti-SOPA folks spread the convenient lie that the law would affect Facebook or Twitter. There were problems with SOPA and I do think it went too far as it was written, but the arguments that actually undid that legislation were pretty much bullshit. I think the ideal is hard enforcement for black market distributors and soft enforcement—even if it’s just a series of warnings, temporary bandwidth throttling, or a small fine—for individual freeloaders. “
However, Ruen’s vision is less about laws and more about lasting reforms, “By far the most important issue is that copyright terms are too long and have made a mockery of the Public Domain," he says. "I’m advocating for a 50-year maximum term, which essentially guarantees that an artist will have rights for their lifetime and that their family can benefit for some time after their death—which I think is only fair. The 50-year term would mean anything released before 1963 would be available for free."
The challenge of Ruen’s argument is how to present it in a landscape where both sides perceive the issue as monolithic. “It’s funny because what I’m arguing is anathema to both extremes of this debate,” Ruen says. “The Digital Determinists who say ‘you can’t fight technology; see any actionable copyright enforcement as the coming of the four horseman, and the big entertainment companies everyone loves to hate will fight hard against any reduction in length of terms, much less what I’m proposing.
"The only way such a balanced solution can gain traction is if fans and artists come together to demand it," he adds. "I don’t see why legitimate digital services couldn’t also get behind such a plan. If we can agree on the general vision for copyright in the digital age, I imagine navigating through the details of how to get there will be much easier.”
At one point, during our conversation, he shrugs, “If I can just get a few people to think about what they’re doing more often, it’s worth it.”