Napster and DeCSS: Is it about free speech or free stuff?

By Nicholas Petreley, LinuxWorld.com |  Operating Systems


I'm an open source, free software, and free speech advocate. But some of the catchphrases of the open source generation are really beginning to annoy me, as do many of the attitudes of the people who chant them and abuse them for personal gain. Take this mantra: "Information wants to be free." Horsehockey. Information doesn't want anything. People want information to be free. But face it: people want corned beef sandwiches on rye to be free, too. That doesn't mean we are entitled to them.



The fact is that our current system entitles us to some free information, and it requires us to purchase or license other information. You may not like the fact that some information must be licensed, but that's how it is. Those who want information to be free as a matter of principle should create some information and make it free. They should encourage others to do likewise. But what they shouldn't do is license or buy existing information that is not free and then cut it loose without permission. That's just plain wrong, and people who do it are demonstrating that what they are interested in is not free speech, but getting stuff without having to pay for it.



This is the problem I have with the Napster controversy. Napster is a fine technology that could be put to good use. But so far the controversy over Napster doesn't seem to be about free speech, but rather about free stuff. It's about a technology that makes it possible to circumvent the intent of publishing music on CDs. Napster is being used to distribute music that was never intended to be shared in such a fashion; so far, few people have suffered severe consequences, and that's the reason the controversy persists. But the situation could change.



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