Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

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.

This story is part of our November/December 2000 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

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.

Be the leader your company needs. Implement ethical AI.
Join us at EmTech Digital 2019.

Register now
Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Print Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.