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That’s the natural conclusion arising out of the muddled mindset that surrounds Napster and similar Web services, which let millions of people freely exchange their musical recordings. I call it muddled, because it offers all sorts of excuses in support of gratification, while ignoring the central human issue.

I have repeatedly screamed from this column that the “content” of movies, news, books, music and videos that everyone is hyperventilating about is, at 5 percent of the industrial economy, barely one-tenth of the far more important currency no one talks about-information work. The latter represents work proffered by people and machines in medical care, finance, education, entertainment, government, commerce and much more. Information work is huge and will dominate Internet business as it does today’s economy. Imagine now that future Web services would let people freely exchange all this information work, in addition to music. Books, newspapers, magazines and movies in their entirety-not just their online versions-would be first. They would be followed by professional service exchanges, for example of a unique and successful program that helps people identify illnesses from symptoms. Should a gifted doctor go to school for more than 20 years, learn complex skills and work for another 20 years to develop this unique program-so that people can pilfer it without her consent?

No more than you and I can get away with stealing a chair! Advocates of Napster argue that information is fundamentally different from physical objects and should be treated differently. It’s true that information does not have a unique physical embodiment and can be easily replicated. Also, it’s a lot easier to download music over the Internet than it would be to download a chair…at least during this century. Yet both the chair and the diagnostic program are the result of skilled human work (carpenter or doctor) and capital (woodworking or computing and medical equipment). Here is the key point: Somebody has expended a valuable portion of his or her life to produce a good that other people find beneficial. If the chair maker is compensated for his work by those who benefit from it, so should the program maker be, and the musician.

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