Nothing for Money

Technology makes it a breeze to download music from the Internet. That doesn't make it right.

There is a battle being waged in the living rooms and dens of America's homes, a battle for our nation's very soul ... and funk ... and pop.

The problem emanates from the Internet, that electronic beast with the unlimited potential and (thus far, anyway) an embarrassingly paltry delivery. Besides being an outlet for kiddie porn, the Internet now has branched out and become an electronic flea market for the illegal swapping of stolen music. It's yet another case where technology has outpaced manners and ethics, and in many a household (including mine), it's causing an unforeseen Generation Gap big enough to drive a truck through.

While I have been (politically) a lifelong liberal Democrat, the rest of my life has been as conservative as an ascetic. No drinking, smoking, drug use, sexcapades, guns, gambling, reckless driving and just a smidge of bad language. And, by being consistent (and by simply being there), I've been able to pass these things along to the children. Indeed, people marvel at the almost Happy Days quality of my kids. It's really no big deal; the key is that it is my wife and I--and not the people at the day-care center--who are raising the kids.

The other day, my son, Alexander, mentioned that he liked a certain band, so I got him the band's latest CD. When I gave it to him, he looked at me like I had bought him a bow tie to wear to the school dance. When I asked him what was wrong, he said, "Dad, why'd you spend money on this? I could download it off Kazaa in about an hour."

(He also went on to say something about how, if we had a super256K-rahrah, heavy-duty, industrial-strength, 4800rimramromrum modem nonsense thing, he could download it in a couple minutes.)

I said, "But Dude, that's stealing."

To which he replied, "No, it's not. It's on the Internet."

It reminded me of an episode of The Rockford Files where Rockford's slimy ex-con buddy, Angel, said, "If you prick me, do I not bleed?"

After an incredulous Rockford blurted, "Angel, that's Shakespeare!," Angel responded, "No, it's not. Vincent Price said it on Hollywood Squares."

Alexander had that same tone of bemused befuddlement when I suggested that what he was doing was, if not illegal, then at least wrong. How could it be illegal, he argued, if millions of people are doing it every day? The government closed down Napster, but they haven't done anything against Kazaa, so it must be legal. Besides, there's that Fair Use Doctrine thing.

Oh my God! First stealing and now I find out he's been reading the newspaper behind my back!

The Fair Use Doctrine says that you can buy a CD and make copies of it for your own use, i.e., the dreaded mix tape. But you can't make 100 copies and sell them to people. At the same time, it's unclear whether you can make 100 copies and give them to people.

We debated this back and forth and he somehow managed to grab the high ground of wide-eyed innocence. Meanwhile, I found myself having to defend the oozing scum that run record labels, if only because doing so was the only way to stand up for the artists who now are getting ripped off from two different directions. We all know that record companies have been screwing consumers for generations. They didn't even try to conceal their greed. They were like pushers dealing with junkies.

A couple good songs would be packaged with eight or 10 mediocre cuts to make an album that would be over-hyped and way over-priced. (It's common knowledge that CDs are far less expensive to manufacture than cassettes or vinyl records, and yet CDs cost several dollars more than the other two items.) And the obscene profits would go to cover hooker and cocaine budgets and to make sure that all the fortysomething executives look really stupid walking around in satin jackets, making bad business decisions.

I'm painfully aware that 10 cents of every CD I buy over the next decade will go to pay Mariah Carey not to record. But is that enough to get me to resort to stealing?

Some record companies have launched their own on-line services where subscribers, for a fee, can download a certain number of songs each month. These services have landed with a thud, as consumers simply shift into the reggae version of "Why should I pay for it when I can get it for free?"

I tried to explain to Alexander that if it reaches a point where the record companies can't make money on their products, there won't be any new products. This is fine with me, because I could easily go the next 30 or 40 years listening to the stuff I already have. Heck, Stevie Ray, Marvin and Dusty aren't going to make any new records, anyway. But it would suck to be young and not have the expectation of that new hot group right around the corner.

The music landscape is certain to undergo radical changes. Companies have already started releasing CDs that can't be copied and are even talking about CDs that only have a limited number of plays in them. Congress is sniffing around, and if lawmakers get involved, it's a dead-bang certainty that the consumer will take it in the spleen.

A lot of people my age think it's about time the record industry got its comeuppance. And there is an entire generation of kids growing up who have never paid a penny for their music. They think it's free and they expect it to stay that way. Further muddying the issue is a group of musical artists who believe it's perfectly OK to download their stuff.

Meanwhile, I'm left standing my ground against my son on an ambiguous battlefield that never should have come into existence. Nevertheless, this is as good a place as any to teach him that right and wrong have nothing to do with convenience and opportunity. Gee, I hope I'm right.