I Read A Book: Robert Levine’s Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back

Creative Commons licensed photo of a parasite

The best thing about this book is the title. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to learn about how to stop parasites? Especially when they are digital! But the book offers little more than the simplistic model of payment is good for copyrighted materials – and pirating is bad.

One of the ways that I judge books that talk about culture and copyright is based on how fans and fandom are written about. And this book doesn’t disappoint, by carefully discussing elements of fan culture and their importance to the continued economic success of multiple media properties. I joke. There is no mention of fandom at all, beyond a page-long dismissive mention of the concept of 1,000 true fans, no mention of consumer buy-in, nothing beyond “you parasite.” In a book about digital culture, this is an EPIC fail.

I also judge books in this oeuvre by their description of Nine Inch Nails’ effort to release music via Creative Commons and other more open means, including the Creative Commons-licensed albums The Slip and Ghosts I-IV, and the label-delayed therefore placed online for the free remix album, Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D (AKA Year Zero Remixed). And lest we forget, Trent Reznor decried his labels at every opportunity, including praising fans for … wait for it, engaging in illegal downloading, Levine’s “parasitic” behavior, extorting them to “steal and steal and steal some more and give it to all your friends and keep on stealing.”

But Levine’s description of T. Rez is:

“the acts that have most successfully used free music to promote major tours –Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails—have benefited from millions of dollars’ worth of marketing from their respective major labels.”

What ho, Jeeves.

If you think I’m playing the detail game, Levine calls out William Patry, one of the pre-eminent copyright scholars for getting the sales of Grand Theft Auto wrong, and then intimates that he would not have the viewpoints he does, but for being Google’s attack dog. Correlation does not imply causation – and Patry held the same views before starting his present job. Levine’s anti-scholar bent is not just directed at Patry. One of the most detrimental aspects of this book is the implication throughout that academics (and academic institutions, like Harvard and Stanford; and non-profits, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons) that are not copyright extremists are activists and in the pocket of big companies (read: Google and its ilk). He directly calls Pamela Samuelson an “activist [,] who wanted to weaken copyright in other ways” (26), calls Jessica Litman someone who ignores the law (46), but saves the majority of his directed fury towards academia towards Lawrence Lessig.

There are actual well-reasoned critiques of Lessig’s work – but this isn’t one of them.  And to publish a book in 2011, critiquing Lessig with nary a mention of Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, where in 2008 Lessig spends a whole book discussing the ways that remix culture can work with traditional media so everyone makes money, is just intellectually lazy. Or deliberate.

Because I am *that* sort of reader, I checked the acknowledgements, which include mentions of Fred von Lohman, Jane Ginsburg, and Marybeth Peters – all huge figures in the area of digital culture and copyright. Highly surprisingly, there are no quotes in the book from them –  except for a brief snippet of Peters’ congressional testimony in her role as the Register of Copyrights, but nothing from the interviews Levine conducted.

In an odd way, I actually prefer Mark Helprin’s “alone in my room, I reign supreme” copyright-should-last-forever-because-I-am-a-brilliant-author diatribe because he was straightforward about what he wanted. And if you want to read about the dangers of Google, read Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything. If you want to read about how the music industry took things in the wrong direction, read Greg Kot’s Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music.

Summary: Not recommended. Save the entertainment and publishing industry through paywalls! Google bad!

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I Read A Book: Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law

Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law, edited by Kembrew McLeod & Rudolph Kuenzli, is a variety of essays (including photo essays) collected from the conference, Collage as Cultural Practice. Unlike many of the other books regarding copyright’s influence on art, these essays focus on the experience of artists, including rappers, musicians, visual artists, and filmmakers.

Negativland explains the role law has played for many artists:

“For artists, copyright means that other art is emphatically not allowed to be seen as part of their landscape, not part of their usable environment, not allowed to be part of something that influences their creative minds, unless they are rich enough to “buy” whatever they want to use. … This withdrawal of all copyrighted art from any future recycling goes directly against the universal and historical prerogative of artists (and consumers) to see the entire world around them as grist for their mill.”

This book is highly recommended for artists and those who want to understand collage/appropriative techniques in art, but that isn’t to say there isn’t anything for academics. This book includes some entertaining footnotes, similar to Erik Jensen’s Shortest Law Review in History (Considering it is only one sentence, would quoting the article be acceptable under the proposed Georgia State copyright settlement) and my all-time favorite footnote regarding H.R. from Copyrights and Copywrongs. One essay is basically a series of footnotes, questioning the concepts of copyright, appropriation, and citation:

Citation buries the truth that we all borrow ideas behind the lie that somewhere there is an individual point of origin, of authorship, of ownership. Steal creatively, and profligately, and stand with chutzpah on the intellectual booty of our collective history! …Let this note be the last note, ever. [It isn’t even the last footnote in this non-essay!]

This book also reminded me of the far reaching influence of the alternative press magazine, Stay Free! The book includes two interviews — of Siva Vaidhyanathan and Chuck D — reprinted from Stay Free, but also the Illegal Art exhibit. Carrie McLaren’s work in creating a space for these issues to be discussed and displayed by creatives is sorely missed, but bills need to be paid!

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In a somewhat related note: Duke University Press, what is with your copyright statements about books on your website? This is at least the third book with a Creative Commons license within the physical copy of the book, but there is nary a mention on the official page of the book (click on rights). Instead, there are directions to contact the Copyright Clearance Center (!) and your permissions department.

What is the point of Creative Commons licensure if you don’t even mention it? And you (Duke University Press) do not own the copyright for either the compilation as a whole (the editors) or the individual chapters (mostly the chapter authors), so your misdirection doesn’t have a clear intent. Or is this copyright statement page the default for all Duke University Press books? If so, then please add in the possibility that either entire works or sections could have Creative Commons licenses!

Music Criticism in a Social Media World

One of my go-to book purchases at the end of the year is the DeCapo Best Music Writing anthology. There’s no way for me to keep up with all the excellent music writing out there – in print and online – and I trust the editors of this anthology to clue me in on what I may have missed.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that more and more of the selections for the book have come from blogs – not just webzine-style blogs, either, but personal blogs. It’s a nice nod to all the underemployed professional music writers who continue to write on their own and also to fans and non-professional music writers who have a strong writing voice. One of the things I enjoy about the series is that it doesn’t privilege professional writers just because they have an official byline from a print publication behind their name, all are lauded for the strength of their writing, regardless of the publishing format.

But these days, even blogging seems a bit old-school and slow moving in an environment where music news routinely breaks and occurs on Twitter. (Of course, there are dangers to the format, as proven by the misinformation merry-go-round that surrounded R&B singer Teena Marie’s death in December.)

This past December, the Village Voice awarded the title of Music Critic of the Year to @discographies, an anonymous Twitter account that sums up the music careers of an artist within Twitter’s 140 characters of less format. Some traditionalists balked, but the recognition is valid. @discographies manages to sum up in 140 characters of less what some music writers can’t manage in a book, while staying witty and opinionated.

I am embarrassed to admit that I haven’t yet finished all of DeCapo’s Best Music Writing 2010, yet I read @discographies daily, in addition to other music twitter feeds and blogs. As much as I respect and enjoy the craft of long form music writing, the quickly digestable online nuggets of music criticism are what I gravitate to more often these days. I don’t think that the rise of short-form music writing has to come at the expense of traditional music writing, in fact, I think there’s an opportunity for broader discussion and sharing among music fans and critics. The voice behind @discographies agrees, saying:

Music criticism is part of the lifeblood of Twitter: every second of every day, people are out there psychoanalyzing Kanye or raving about Cee-Lo or going to a show and tweeting “jeez, Malkmus looks bored tonight.”  I  think Twitter is a new kind of vessel for delivering content; maybe even a transformative one. And one of the nice things about it is its neutrality: it’s as well suited to music criticism as it is to sharing recipes or storytelling or the (allegedly) funny remarks that were (supposedly) uttered by someone’s dad.

The concept of crowd-sourced  music criticism/journalism really appeals to me. I’ve been on Twitter while some of my friends and acquaintances have been at the same concert. To follow their passionate, sometimes contradictory reports [“Amazing Baby is rocking the house tonight!”/”I hate everything about Amazing Baby] gives me the kind of “fan’s eye view” that a review from Greg Kot can’t re-create.  Twitter music criticism isn’t taking the place of print, but extending the life of that criticism farther and faster than previously imagined.

I Read A Book – Open Leadership : How Social Technologies Can Transform The Way You Lead

For organizations new to social media, venturing into this world can seem daunting and alien at times: new apps and tools to learn, lots of scary jargon, whatever goofy new change Facebook has unveiled this week.

But the fundamental change that drives social media is pretty simple to articulate, if no less daunting: it’s a shift in how individuals communicate with each other and with organizations. The tools that facilitate this communication (social networks, mobile, blogs) value sharing of content and information. Because individuals can share, they often do, and it’s become the new standard for many.

Like Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky, Charlene Li’s earlier book Groundswell covers this ground adeptly, but in my experience as someone who worked in a large organization struggling to adapt its culture to social media’s culture of sharing and openness, there was still a missing link, a book that gave concrete strategies that a worker like me could take to her boss. (Or her boss’ boss).

However, Open Leadership is that missing link. It’s a book that speaks to organizational leaders directly, confronts their concerns – and yes, fears – about social media technologies and how they are used,  provides compelling case studies of large organizations that have adapted, and most importantly offers assessments and action strategies for organizations to use.

And trust me, it’s needed. Social media often scares executives and many communications professionals who devote much of their energies to crafting and controlling a particular message (internally and externally) on behalf of their organization, yet also see the opportunity it represents. Li is very clear about the importance of  top-down executive leadership in effective organizational social media practice. And by taking the emphasis off of tactics and even strategy, and placing it on organizational development and  leadership, she creates a compelling argument for social media practice that will speak to even the most resistant higher-up. Li says:

“No matter how compelling a technology or potential relationship might be in the face of an immovable mass called company culture, and without the right organization and leadership in place, any digital strategy will fail.”

So many of the popular social media “self help” books focus on small-nimble start-ups or former startups that have grown in the last five to ten years, and having worked for a number of large organizations with an entrenched company culture, I can say without a doubt it’s  a hard thing to change, and no amount of social media cheerleading can take the place of a compelling case study that says “hey there are other big companies who allow their employees to blog or respond publicly to negative feedback  – and they haven’t gone under!)”

Open Leadership uses examples from both for-profit and non-profit organizations to highlight best practices (and missteps). Li starts the book with a description of how the Red Cross’ first social media manager, Wendy Harnan, integrated social media practice into the organization through education and a clear policy. She explains how United Airlines turned a public relations nightmare around through their open response to the” United Hates Guitars” You Tube song, and she talks about the customer service approach that Comcast CEO Brian Robers adopted that propelled the companies use of social media. She outlines companies that have clear and open internal social media policies for their employees.

To bolster these case studies, Li devotes the rest of the book to laying out a strategy for Open Leadership within an organization and maintaining relationships under a more open management style. She suggests, using tried and true tactics like establishing Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s)  – and yes, as a web analytics geek this made me very happy – identifying organizational workflows, established social media policies (Li prefers to call them “covenants”). She encourages organizations to allow opportunities for employees to share in decision making and in leadership, and she uses case studies of companies (Cisco, Best Buy) who continue to evolve into a  more open organization

What I actually found most valuable about Open Leadership is the fact that  it has more in common with management books like Good to Great than the usual social media tomes that focus more on technology or case studies of campaigns. It  places the emphasis on the  leadership styles and organizational practices that make the most out social technologies rather focusing on social media as a  marketing tool.

So with that said, is Open Leadership a must-read for all managers/executives?  The optimist in me says “yes,” a committed, engaged leader who’s willing to take measured risk, possibly fail, and go back to the drawing board again and again will get a lot out of this book. But the cynic in me thinks that the executives that need this book the most would never bother to pick it up. I hope I’m wrong.

Thinking Out Loud: Is Reading Dead?

U.S. military using manga (comics) to teach Japanese children about security alliance.

So to get the answer out of the way — no, reading is not dead. Either as a communications tool or as a hobby.

While Wired recently declared that the Web is dead, reading is far from dead. How much of social media is written? Texting, Twittering, Facebooking, and Tumblring are all based on the written form. While Google has recently started a phone service, many people use their smart phones for written communications.

And there have been a wave of new reading devices — from the Kindle to the Nook to the IPad that are selling well. And the idea that Amazon is now selling more ebooks than hardcovers shows that people do want to have new ways of reading. (I use Stanza).

That isn’t to say that there aren’t drawbacks to many of the new ways of reading — both in terms of new hurdles for accessing information and ownership of information. At the heart of the Wired article is the idea that more and more information is being accessed from places that are not the open web anymore, whether they are through apps or behind paywalls or passwords. And I have many misgivings about the licensing terms that are placed on those that use ereaders — basically, the first sale doctrine, allowing a purchaser to sell a book to others doesn’t really apply for ereader books.

I think about all of the massivekid/teen/adult book crazes — Harry Potter, Twilight, and now potentially the Hunger Games series -that have been as big as Star Wars was, in terms of the overwhelming interest by fans. There hasn’t been a new non-book/comic tie-in movie,  band, television show (with the possible exception of Lost) or other mainstream media item with this level of sustained interest in years.

This isn’t to say that reading isn’t going to change. The ability to annotate and share will continue to grow in a way that will continue to morph our ideas of what a completed work is. But just as errata for books and corrections in newspapers hasn’t ended reading, these new ways of reading won’t either.

I read a book: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Until recently, Clay Shirky was best known as the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The book  was widely praised (seriously, Boing Boing calls it a “masterpiece”) and is still referenced  by social media strategist/expert/guru types as a must-read for anyone looking to explore the social dynamics that drive the use of technology, which at the time (and even now, to a certain extent) is not what drives most conversation about the internet and social media in particular.

Rather than focusing the catalyst of online social behavior on specific technologies  (i.e. what makes Facebook so popular?) Shirky argued that social tools facilitates common group behavior, conversation and social interaction. At the time, the beginning of Facebook’s online dominance and in the midst of growing fascination and panic about social media from the mainstream press. Shirky presented a reasoned, articulate and well-researched argument that the idea of “crowdsourcing” was not a new idea, but actually rooted in common, even traditional social interaction. The Internet just made that interaction happen more widely and more rapidly.

If you talk to any social media/internet  “expert” or “enthusiast” these days, this perspective is seen as common knowledge, but without Shirky’s well-presented theory and research to bolster this theory it wouldn’t have taken root.

In 2010, you’d think that this argument wouldn’t need repeating or clarification, but as traditional media continues to evolve and digital use continues to grow and become more ubiquitous, the panic of social theorists and mainstream media commentators continues unabated. The continuing debate of whether the Internet makes you smarter or more stupid seems to have a new chapter each day, but in Cognitive Surplus, Shirky’s latest book, he does add fuel to that fire, but also offers a modified version of his Here Comes Everybody thesis: The Internet has given us the tools to create, publish and share media  faster, cheaper and with more people than ever before

Shirky’s revised thesis is the reason that I think Cognitive Surplus is a must-read (there’s that term again) for media professionals in every field.

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I read a book: Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives

Want to read a book that talks about both the spread of STDs and what unwitting problems programmers can add to a MMPORG?And the influence of friendships between members of Congress on what laws are passed? And the impact we have on the health of those we don’t even know?

In Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, Nicholas Christais and James Fowler write about the influences of others on our lives in multiple domains, including public health, politics, and online activities.

While there are sections in this book that do not contain new information to those in these fields, what is unique —  but not surprising in a book about networks! — are the connections between these divergent fields. While reading this book, I was reminded of the work of Cass Sunstein, Henry Jenkins, Yochai Benkler, Eszter Hargittai, danah boyd, and a slew of public health researchers I don’t know by name.

In addition, though written for a general audience, the book has detailed citations, for those that want to delve further. Highly recommended.