There's plenty of drama left in the file-sharing debate

April 24, 2012: 11:49 AM ET

Rock legend Levon Helm has been posthumously dragged into an emotional dispute over digital piracy between a Reddit co-founder and a university professor who was once The Band's road manager.

levon_helmFORTUNE -- A feud that has flared up over the past several days between Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and Jonathan Taplin, head of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, provides a microcosm of the copyright debate: it's zero-sum and full of drama.

Most of the drama has come from Taplin, who is a former road manager for The Band. The two debated copyright policy last Wednesday evening during Fast Company's "Innovation Uncensored" event. The previous day, it had come out that Levon Helm of The Band was about to die of cancer. Taplin opened his argument by saying: "Tonight, Levon Helm is dying, basically broke." He blamed piracy for the "basically broke" part. Helm, he said, had been making $150,000 to $200,000 a year in royalties. But "eight years ago, that stopped" when sales of The Band's back catalog dried up as file-sharing took hold. "That, to me, is not fair," he said.

Perhaps not. But The Band broke up in 1976. If Helm had been making at least $150,000 a year, that means he made a minimum of $4.2 million between the breakup of the band and the time his royalties, according to Taplin, vanished. Presumably, he was making a lot more while the group was still putting out records and touring the world during the eight years that comprised the group's heyday, not to mention whatever he made from solo work and later (far less lucrative) iterations of The Band. If he was broke, piracy was not the only reason. (Taplin made several other questionable statements, which Mike Masnick highlighted at TechDirt.)

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Still, it's true that Helm and many, many other musicians (and others in the entertainment business) have lost a lot of money since the advent of file-sharing. Lots of people who would have otherwise purchased his music in recent years have downloaded it illicitly instead. This is a problem, as Ohanian, to his credit, acknowledged. Piracy, he said is "the curse of the benefit that is worldwide, instant distribution."

But as too often happens in debates on this topic, the participants each refused to acknowledge that the other had a point. Taplin laid the blame for piracy on tech companies like Google (GOOG), but said nothing about the media industry's years of clueless missteps and penchant for hauling its own customers into court, not to mention how the record labels mistreated artists for decades before piracy became a problem. Ohanian for his part, put all the blame on the media industry, but said nothing about the ethical culpability of people who download illicit material or outfits, like Pirate Bay, that profit from it.

The moderator tried to get them to find something they could agree on, but they didn't really try.

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It was a fairly heated debate, but things got even hotter afterward. Ohanian followed up with a blog post addressed to Taplin where he reiterated his arguments that new models like crowdfunding (as on Kickstarter) can help solve the problem. He offered to use Reddit and Kickstarter to help finance a project by the remaining two members of The Band to honor Helm. And he noted how the music industry had been well-known for taking advantage of artists since well before file-sharing began.

He was polite, but Taplin responded on Monday with some of the same irascibility he displayed during the debate and with a lot more anger. Once again referring to Helm, who had died in the intervening days, he wrote:

I am sad not just for Levon's wife and daughter, but sad that you could be so condescending to offer "to make right what the music industry did to the members of The Band." It wasn't the music industry that created Levon's plight; it was people like you celebrating Pirate Bay and Kim Dotcom--bloodsuckers who made millions off the hard work of musicians and filmmakers." [For the record, Ohanian never "celebrated" piracy, but merely said it's something that media companies will have to learn to live with.]

Taplin continued:

So what is your solution -- charity. You want to give every great artist a virtual begging bowl with Kickstarter. But Levon never wanted the charity of the Reddit community or the Kickstarter community. He just wanted to earn an honest living off the great work of a lifetime. You are so clueless as to offer to get The Band back together for a charity concert, unaware that three of the five members are dead. Take your charity and shove it. Just let us get paid for our work and stop deciding that you can unilaterally make it free.

And so the debate rages on, with few of the participants looking for common ground -- such as working to find ways to both rationally battle piracy and to adjust business models to fit with the changes that technology inevitably brings.

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