Napster: just free stuff

I'm an advocate of open source, free software and free speech. 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". Bollocks. Information doesn't want anything. People want information to be free.

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.

Look, this music was intended to be distributed only via commercial media like CDs, with the expectation that you would buy the CD if you wanted to listen to it any time. If you want to share that music with your friends, you lend out your CDs. If you can't part with your collection, then you buy copies for your friends. That's the way the system is structured. Deal with it. If you want the system to change, then change it the way Linux has changed the complexion of software. Change it by recording new music with musicians who buy into your new way of distributing music.

Let me put this another way. If this is really about principles and not greed, then I would like to issue a challenge to you Napster advocates who insist that this is a matter of free speech. I suggest you create a new peer-to-peer networking system for software. I'll call this hypothetical system Crookster. I challenge you to make all your favorite commercial software applications freely available to anyone who downloads the Crookster client. But don't do this anonymously like the warez doodz and crackers do. Do it for the cause, because you believe that information truly wants to be free.

And here's a tip for those who genuinely want to draw media attention to your righteous cause. I suggest you start by sharing your copy of Windows 2000 with the world. I guarantee you'll get coverage on all the major networks.

Which brings me to my point. Have you noticed that few (if any) Napster advocates are arguing that it should be legal to purchase a copy of Windows 2000 and share it with a community of Windows fans on the Internet via a peer-to-peer networking system? Why not? Is it because there are no fans or potential fans of Windows 2000? Or is it because people know that if they tried it, Microsoft's lawyers would have them thrown in the can before they could finish next morning's Weetbix?

People are already addressing the issue of free software the right way. Instead of subverting an existing system of commercial software, they are creating new, open source software and publishing it. Others are trying to find ways of making money by selling and supporting this free software.

Likewise, if people want music to be free, they should create free music and find new ways to distribute it. And if there's a way to make money on this, someone will find it. We all have the right and opportunity to create new ways of doing things. We do not have a right to subvert existing systems just because we have the technology to do so and want free stuff.