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Your Work Is Mine!

Becoming interconnected is no excuse for surrendering to the fallacious notion that our information work must be shared for free.

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.

The low cost of copying software, compared to “copying” chairs, does not change this bigger picture: For centuries, authors, actors, musicians and inventors have been compensated for their contributions based on the same principle: The cost of human work, and of all the economic factors that go into making the good, is spread among the copies (call it tickets, royalties, downloading fees to a Web service or whatever else blows your hair back).

Failing to value the musician’s or the doctor’s or anyone else’s information work will lead us to a society where more than half of human work in the industrial world will no longer be valued! And along the way, we would be demolishing social principles that took us thousands of years to develop, just because we have become interconnected. Are we really ready to surrender the value of human work to this fickle excuse?

But the Napster crowd offers more reasons: (1) revenge against an exploitative distribution system; (2) stimulating record sales by sampling musical offerings; (3) helping artists disseminate their music, never mind the royalties; and (4) ensuring that our cultural legacy propagates unfettered through free information. Baloney! If an artist wants their songs to be freely available or sampled (or a doctor wants the same for her program), they can elect to put their work in the public domain-rather than adhere to compulsory free sharing. If the record companies are greedy, let’s just download the music directly from the artists-a new breed of Web services (record companies too, if they are smart) could help with production, distribution and fee collection. And if record companies behave illegally, let’s prosecute them. But whatever we do or don’t do, let’s not hide behind such excuses. Stripped of cosmetic explanations, freely sharing information work over the Internet without the consent of its creator is an act of aggression that boasts, “I am entitled to your work for free and for my own precious benefit.”

The central issue here is not an abstract differentiation between physical and information goods, nor a debate on copyright laws, nor a rationalization of the human desire for free benefits. It is the realization that useful information goods, like useful physical goods, involve the same precious ingredient-human life in the form of human work. So let’s focus on policies and techniques, most of which we already have, that enable information workers to be compensated for their efforts in accordance with our established principles of social interchange. The privacy, security and payment technologies we need are here. All we need is the steadfast determination to continue valuing human work.

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