Levon Helm – a multi-awarded rock legend for The Band that passed away in 2012 – has been posthumously “involved” into a dispute over digital privacy between Reddit’s co-founder and a university professor who was once the band’s road manager.
A heated debate took place between Alexis Ohanian (Reddit’s co-founder) and Jonathan Taplin (head of the USC Anneberg Innovation Lab) on a subject that’s still sensitive – digital piracy.
Also a former road manager for The Band, Taplin discussed the copyright policy last Wednesday evening during Fast Company’s “Innovation Uncensored” event. A day before Levon Helm was about to die of cancer. Taplin opened the discussion by saying:
“Tonight, Levon Helm is dying, basically broke.”
He attributed the “basically broke” part to piracy. He continued saying that Helm was making $150.000 to $200.000 a year in royalties. But “eight years ago, that stopped”, when sales started to plummet due to file-sharing. “That, to me, is not fair,” he said.
A valid argument, but also to take into consideration is the fact that The Band broke up in ’76. If Helm was making $150.000 a year, it means that he managed to make a minimum of $4.2 million between the breakup of the band and the time his royalties started to disappear. Furthermore, it’s presumed that he was making a whole lot of money when the group was still creating records. Other sources of revenues were the tours around the world, and his single projects.
Point is piracy is not the only one to blame for his situation.
Taplin has made several other questionable statements, highlighted by Techdirt’s Mike Masnick.
It’s true that piracy took its toll on album sales around the world, a problem acknowledged by professor Ohanian who said it is “the curse of the benefit that is worldwide, instant distribution.”
As it happens with this kind of debates, the participants refused to accept each other’s points. Taplin pointed the blame on tech companies such as Google, but said nothing about the media industry’s inability to take the right steps to overcome this problem. And another issue at hand is that record labels mistreated artists for decades, before piracy became a problem. On the other side, Ohanian puts the blame on the media industry, but did not mention the ethical culpability of people who illegally download copyrighted material or outfits, like Pirate Bay, that profit from it.
Although the moderator of the debate tried to find something the two could agree on, they weren’t really open to that kind of solution.
The debate continues to build up. Ohanian followed up with a blog post addressed to Taplin where he reiterated his arguments that new models like crowdfunding can help with the problem. He offered to use Reddit and Kickstarter to help finance a project by the remaining two member of The Band to honor the man who was Helm. He also pointed out that the music industry took advantage on artists since long before file-sharing was born.
Despite his polite tone, Taplin responded on Monday with a bit of a grudge in his heart. Referring to Helm, who had died during the days of the interview, he said:
“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.”
“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.”
We find the reaction only normal, especially under those circumstances. The clarity of thoughts can be easily clouded by someone’s death, especially someone close. Although Taplin has a point, like we’ve said before, piracy is not the only one to blame. Besides, the music industry didn’t make it easier, it actually made things worse than they were.
Regardless of who’s right and wrong, we do mourn the passing of a great artist, and we offer our condolences to the family and friends of Levon Helm.