SILICON LOUNGE: No Freedom of Choice in Napsterville

A tiny old woman with pink hair and a bad case of osteoporosis hunched outside my ATM. She begged quietly, "Can you spare a dollar?" I handed her $3. Her light blue eyes looked up at mine; she grabbed my wrist with her wrinkled hand. "Wait, I have something to give you." I started to protest, but realized her pride was reaching out. I waited as she fumbled in a plastic bag for a roll of photocopies. She peeled off a too-dark copy of a rather expressionist drawing; she'd personalized it with little whirls of Liquid Paper. "Did you do this?" I asked. She nodded with a missing-tooth smile. I walked away, realizing the integrity of that miniature beggar: She didn't want something for nothing.

Of course every person reduced by life to begging should not give me something in return for basic human kindness. But that incident happened to fall during the pro-Napster rage sweeping the Net community and came just days after my own copyrighted work had been lifted by Contentville. (Contentville is media critic -- oh, bittersweet irony -- Steven Brill's consortium of corporate giants including Primedia (New York mag), CBS/Westinghouse, NBC and Microsoft, gathered to profit off other people's work. The sweet lady's gesture told me that pockets of honor still exist in a New Selfish Economy where entrepreneurs-du-jour want to turn a million by sundown, corporate interests try to profit off content while bilking the creators, and college students get widespread empathy for what would be considered simple theft offline.

Napster is an ingenuously unethical way for music fanatics to get a lot of quality music files for nothing. Napster fanatics say the "service" sticks it to corporate monsters, an argument that ignores the fact that today's young "radicals" -- to use that word trivially -- often become tomorrow's corporate nightmares. The bottom line: The record industry can be "revolutionized" -- a strong word for scoring cheaper CDs, by the way -- by MP3s without taking away the choice of artists and their representatives of whether to give away their creation for free, or who they're cool with profiting off it.

I've heard the drill: Napster is the proverbial shot to kick off the war to collectivize intellectual property, no? Information is supposed to be free, blah, blah, oblivion. I see. We now have the technology to disseminate music, books, articles, images and so on, so it is inevitable that creators must just "get over it" and accept that we're just another Borg drone, earning our living off selling logo-emblazoned T-shirts or gas masks. Barf.

"Music, software, it's all going to be public domain," University of Virginia student Sam Ross told National Public Radio. Please, Sam, most of us work in the real world. Does anyone really believe all that marketable content is going to be flower-child free to anyone who desires it? If creators lose our ability to control and profit from our work, someone else will count our change. That "public domain" you speak of will suddenly become a corporate cash cow.

Enter Contentville. After its July debut, thousands of writers and former grad students learned that our copyrighted work is posted without our permission or prior knowledge, and being sold starting at $2.95 a download. Most free-lance writers -- in exchange for the lack of paid vacation, health insurance, workspace or (usually) prompt payment and for the honor of paying double Social Security taxes -- sell only "first rights" to our work. The courts recently affirmed in Tasini v. New York Times that a publisher can run an article only once for the agreed-upon rate; other uses, including electronic, will cost at least a cut of the profits. It's a fair system. We create, they pay, readers rejoice.

But the Internet is a new road to Greedville. Brill's venture initially got much content through agreements with scant-known library archivers that licensed it from publishers for use in library databases. Now the archivers want a piece of the New Economy; they're arrogantly reselling my work to media outlets that I may not want to be associated with. (And I do my part to spread copyright karma: I pay for my software and have never lifted a book from Barnes & Noble.) Under fire, Brill rudely offered writers a 30-percent cut of what their work nets. Many are just saying no, take it down. Meantime, the illustrious New York Times is appealing the Tasini ruling to the Supreme Court to protect its control over creators' works. Now that's a moral lesson from the paper of record.

If creators aren't vigilant, corporate interests like Brill & Co. and wannabe-millionaires like Napster will continue bypassing creators, demonizing us when we talk back. Unfortunately, creators are the Cindarellas no one wants to listen to, so I'll close with a metaphor that might compute. Pay teachers well and involve them in educational decisions, and you will attract fine, creative, energetic educators who will do our children proud. Underpay, chastise and ignore teachers, and the good ones will defect, leaving kids in the hands of men and women who teach by uninspired rote and show up for a measly paycheck.

Take that noble lesson to the dorm room.

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