When father was a boy, freedom was much on the minds of college students. We marched for the civil rights of blacks and for the freedom of farm workers to join unions. Many of us resisted sacrificing our freedom to an unjust war. We asserted the freedom of women to transcend ancient, confining roles, and the rights of former colonies to free self-governance.
Like countless idealistic generations before them, today's students are also demanding freedom. Specifically, they are asserting their right to free music. Thanks to programs like Napster, students can download from the Internet recorded music for which someone else holds a copyright. To enthusiasts Napster is nothing more than highly automated record-swapping. To the recording industry, it's organized piracy. Ask a student to morally defend this theft of someone else's property, and the answer is invariably that the student sympathizes with the recording artist but loathes the evil record company. So a small act of larceny becomes a principled act against tyranny.
The battle cry of the Napster generation is that information is naturally free. One survivor of my generation, Net philosopher John Perry Barlow, invariably identified as the onetime lyricist for the Grateful Dead, has grandly called the Napster controversy "the Concord" (as in the battle of Lexington and Concord) of the Internet age. I have to wonder if patriot Sam Adams, himself immortalized in the Internet century as a microbrew, would concur.
What is really at issue here? For starters, two different meanings of the word "free" are being conflated. The freedom for the artist to reach the widest possible audience and the freedom of listeners to search for any tune are getting confused with the right to get something for nothing, even if it's someone else's work product.
At this writing, an appeals court has stayed a preliminary injunction sought by the Recording Industry Association of America, which would have shut Napster down. But the next generation of Internet swap-programs, such as Gnutella and Freenet, could be lawsuit-proof because they do not use centralized directories.
If this battle doesn't quite rank with the American Revolution, there's something to be said for Web distribution of music. It eliminates unnecessary middlemen, whose function is often to narrow rather than broaden what's available to listeners. Once, record producers could justify their role because music was costly to record, promote, and distribute. Today, new technology brings the cost of production within range of accomplished amateurs, and Web distribution is costless.
Still, even if we have little sympathy for record companies, artists need to be compensated. In principle the solution is easy. Congress could require those who operate the Net to insist on standard protocols for music exchange, which in turn would allow the payment of very small royalties direct to the artist when a piece of music was downloaded. (In Britain authors collect a tiny royalty whenever one of their books is checked out of a public library.) This approach would protect artists and force recording companies to charge no more for their services than the value they actually add.
But the obstacles to this commonsense solution are both political and technical. Once a piece of music is out on the Web, it's effectively in the public domain. Even if technically feasible, a regulatory scheme that forced the operators of the Net to police data transfer protocols would be a privacy invasion that violated the whole Net ethic.
Ideally, Napster gives performers total artistic control and direct access to fans. Eliminate the middleman, and word of mouth rather than commercialized hype becomes the basis for an artist's popularity. Some well-known performers support Napster since they believe it helps build an audience for their music. What they lose in some record sales they will eventually make up in concert tickets and volume among fans who still buy CDs. At the other extreme, Net distribution is great for amateur groups with small, niche audiences. But, paradoxically, there is also a risk that free Internet distribution could crowd out the mid-range artist or writer who needs to make a living from his or her art. If royalties are uncollectible, the mid-range workaday performer gets squeezed out. Ironically, record companies are blamed for this kind of bifurcation, but free Web distribution makes it worse.
I wish I could discern a politics in all of this new professed concern for freedom. There's a whiff of populism in the student backlash against record companies, but most of it is opportunist rather than considered. If the Internet could deliver it, there would be the same acclaim for free beer. I'd be more impressed by a populist student backlash, say, against companies that deny cheap AIDS drugs to Africa, but that cause doesn't feature free music.
In this celebration of liberty, there is also little appreciation for the fact that freedom is a complex balancing act of competing rights. The founders of this Republic appreciated that freedom was about both the private pursuit of happiness and the public pursuit of a good society. It's fine for private happiness to take the form of free music, but disturbing when that pleasure becomes defined as the essence of freedom itself.
My generation's parents worried that our obsession with other people's freedom would get us arrested. Today's parents have more mundane worries: Are we really paying a hundred thousand dollars so our offspring can spend their college years acquiring the world's biggest record collection? I know one student who boasts of having 12,000 recordings. His computer works all night, downloading tracks via Napster. When does he have time to play them? Maybe, in the ultimate elimination of the middleman, the computer could also listen to the music. ¤