A conservative case against Napster

Posted: Aug 23, 2000 12:00 AM
Conservatives have been at the forefront of defending Microsoft's intellectual property rights, but are reluctant to criticize Napster for fear of seeming anti-technology and pro-government. Don't be intimidated by the cyber-mob. Napster is about freeloading, not freedom. Napster, for those of you who still own phonographs, is the popular software program that allows Internet users to trade free music files and trash copyright laws. Everyone knows someone who has used it -- and it's not just members of the nose-ringed generation who are guilty. But instead of admitting that what they're doing is wrong, many Napster advocates can't help but make ridiculous rationalizations for what amounts to habitual high-tech theft. Self-anointed "futurists" argue that Napster shouldn't be stopped because it would put a damper on innovation and creative liberty. Digital distribution is the wave of the future, they preach. MP3s (the file format used to digitize music) are here to stay, they crow. Yes, the technology is cool. But the mere existence of MP3 technology doesn't legitimize the rampant illicit use of that technology. Defenders ask why Napster should be liable for the copyright violations of its users. As one writer put it on a message board at CNET.com: "Automakers don't get sued when someone breaks the law while behind the wheel. VCR makers are not bothered when millions of people pirate videos. Why should Napster be held accountable for their users violating copyright laws?" Why? Because car manufacturers and VCR makers don't create a product whose primary use is intended to break the law. Napster's main purpose for existence, however, is to enable the mass circumvention of intellectual property rights and create a paradise for people in search of stolen goods. Some goo-goo-eyed Napsterites couch the service as an enterprise in "sharing." The 20 million people who use Napster to pirate music are a "community," the argument goes. They are simply celebrating a common interest. Give me a break. Napster has as much communal spirit as a shoplifters' convention. A new survey conducted by two scientists at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center shows that users of another Napster-like music-trading system called Gnutella are far more interested in hogging files than sharing them. Their study found that "upwards of 70 percent of Gnutella users share no files, and that 90 percent of the users answer no queries." It's a classic example of free riding. Napster advocates say no one is hurt by the system. At the margin, this may be true. But in the aggregate, Napstering is not a victimless crime. There are musicians and songwriters and marketers and publicists and record companies getting ripped off tens of thousands of times a day thanks to the Web site. Napster champions fall back on business-bashing when their other bogus arguments fall apart. They complain about high CD prices and turn up the class warfare rhetoric against "greedy" record companies that are "only out for a profit." Expecting to get compensated for your work isn't greedy. Feeling entitled to distribute and copy others' work without paying for it, is. And as the musicians who run the Stop Napster Web site note: "You don't get a license to steal just because you think the product is too expensive." When they're not complaining about high CD prices, the Napsterites point to increased CD sales as a reason to keep the Web site alive. That has more to do with a good economy than with anything else. It's disingenuous at best to argue that Napster encourages users to buy music that the service makes available for free. Just listen to members of the Napster generation honest enough to admit why they use it: "I haven't bought a CD in forever," 17-year-old Zack H. told the Chicago Tribune. "Because of Napster, I don't have to." "Napster's the best thing ever created," a high school student named Alejandro told Newsweek magazine. "I don't have to spend any money." Napster gurus can prattle on about promoting creativity and protecting the future from us Stone Agers. But behind this glitzy cyber-rhetoric is liberalism's moldy old belief in getting something for nothing.