Intellectual property: Napster and ethics

I've left much of the discussion of Napster, Gnutella and other so-called "peer-to-peer" technologies to my learned friend and colleague Mark Gibbs. But an exchange with publisher and open source guru Tim O'Reilly (as well as a number of high-tech writers who should know the value of intellectual property) over the Napster phenomenon has led me to believe that most people no longer feel the need for ethical standards.

In traditional ethical studies, the classic problem is the starving man - can a starving man ethically steal a loaf of bread if he has no money? The modern version is, evidently, can the person who wants to listen to music steal it if he thinks the price is too high? Or, as O'Reilly put it: "Where the music industry has really gone wrong is that they've lost their legitimacy with consumers. ... They are training people to steal by giving them no legitimate alternative."

No legitimate alternative? The alternative you have to what you feel is over-priced merchandise is the same as it always was - don't buy it. If enough people don't buy it, then one of three things happens: a) the vendor goes out of business (that's the one many dot-coms didn't learn); b) competitors spring up to lower prices (that's how Amazon got started, as well as Internet Explorer); or c) the vendor lowers the price (IBM PCs followed this model).

Diamonds are artificially high-priced because they're controlled by an international cartel. Nevertheless, my wife really likes jewelry and I like to do things for her that she likes. Does that mean I can, ethically, steal diamonds? I don't think O'Reilly, my fellow writers or most of the Napster community would feel that way. Some out of fear of punishment, sure, but most because they really believe it's wrong to steal diamonds.

The problem is that music, words, ideas - all intellectual property - are seen as, somehow, not being as worthy of protection as real "things," such as diamonds. Even the people who produce the intellectual property have a hard time understanding the ethics involved, because - deep down - they're thrilled that someone else likes their work so much as to steal it. Nevertheless, it's ethically, morally and (for the most part) legally wrong.

If you want to comment on this, please use the mailbox ethics@vquill.com.

This story, "Intellectual property: Napster and ethics" was originally published by Network World.

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