Will the internet kill the geese that lay our golden eggs? By Terrell Ward Bynum

In an op-ed article in the New York Times (“There’s No Free Hollywood,” June 21, 2000, p. A23), Jack Valenti – Chairman of the Motion Picture Association – expressed alarm that new software programs [for example, like Napster and Freenet] are making it easier and easier to download “free” copies of music, films, videos, books and software off the Internet. This new capability, he worries, will end up destroying any incentive that musicians, film makers, writers and artists may have to continue creating their valuable products for the world. Mr. Valenti calls those who make and use software programs to download “free” copyrighted materials “thieves,” “plunderers,” “pilfering zealots,” and “Internet marauders.” He asks:

If copyright can no longer protect the distribution of the work they produce, who will invest immense sums to create films or any other creative material of the kind we now take for granted? Do the thieves really expect new music and movies to continue pouring forth if the artists and companies behind them are not paid for their work?

Mr. Valenti notes that intellectual property products like movies and music bring in more wealth to America from international trade than the auto industry does, or the aircraft industry, or farm products from America’s rich farmlands. He says that society has a responsibility to find a way to control “free” downloading so that it doesn’t destroy “a national treasure that every other nation views with envy.”

Mr. Valenti’s worries go to the heart of some very knotty issues in computer ethics. Are his questions the appropriate ones that society ought to be asking about copyrighted materials and the ownership of intellectual property? Are we witnessing the end of intellectual property as we know and understand it? – and if so, is this a good thing? With almost every form of intellectual property becoming digitizable, will the Internet kill the geese that lay our golden eggs? – or will it usher in a new age in which property and wealth will be created and distributed in very different ways that are yet to be invented? What is a fair and reasonable way for society to proceed?

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