A friend passed through town the other day, a young writer I've mentored. He is traveling to take the pulse of Americans and write a book.
We were halfway through our first schooner of ale when the subject of Internet piracy arose. This writer called it information "sharing." I called it "stealing," and within a flash we had nothing at all to discuss.
Our views were so far apart, so different and so certain that we could not do what friends, or writers, should. We couldn't inquire. We didn't listen. If there was a shred of empathy between us, we were drawing on old reserves.
We changed the subject to something simpler -- women, I think.
This confrontation unsettles me. Our culture's changing views about ownership, possession and enjoyment of someone else's creative work are leading us to dark places.
Even if I draw back and seek to frame matters as questions, my tone still assumes the edginess of argument: If technology bestows a new right on its users to "share" music, movies and stories without payment, what will be the incentive to make music, produce movies and write stories? Aren't we rushing toward a vastly diminished future in which Internet technology coldly devours those things that provide us diversion and pleasure and stimulation?
Or this: What is the distinction between robbing a person and robbing him of his ability to earn? In this context, how is the technology of Pentium different from a .45?
But what is obvious to me is off point to my friend and the others with whom I cannot carry on this discussion.
Am I against freedom? Whose side am I on: big business or the ordinary guy? Why can't a person share a movie or a song on the Internet -- or even a copy of this column? Hey, it's just free promotion, getting the word out, like hearing a song on the radio or clipping the newspaper, isn't it?
Or as my friend put it: How about the underground guerrilla filmmaker who wants to send her work out over the Internet for everyone to see? Should she be blocked from expressing herself to protect some big movie studio's profits?
There is a kind of Mideast finality to these nondiscussions.
My own view is that we've already gone too far, and Congress will have a difficult time setting things right. Our dreamy infatuation with the possibilities of technology and the Internet has come at the expense of our wariness. Our hard-earned cynicism about the promised free lunch seems to have been suspended just when we need it.
Those who now share music instead of buying it cling to the notion that they are part of a populist celebration that will be good for musicians in the same way that public libraries have been good for authors. By extension, all of our arts will flourish.
Not for long. Rolling Stone magazine recently reported that between 1997 and 2000, music sales increased 18 percent nationwide but dropped 13 percent at independent stores near college campuses. CD-burning and Internet music "sharing" are chiefly to blame. "Where indie record stores once thrived, tech-savvy students short on funds can now build their record collections for the buck or less that a blank disc costs, rather than the $12 to $18 it costs to buy the commercial product," the magazine explained.
Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that perhaps a million people saw the newest installment of "Star Wars" online before the movie opened in theaters, thanks to piracy and easy Internet distribution. In the case of a big-sound, special-effects film like this, ticket sales probably will not decline. But what about other movies? And who will buy or rent the DVD when they can copy their own?
"I'm sure there's some middle ground," my friend told me, politely, as a means to draw our disagreement to an end.
I don't think so. History will record this epoch in which we live as the Convenience Age, not the Information Age. And as it becomes more convenient to download than to buy, it won't matter whether you call it sharing or stealing. The result will be the same.
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