AT LARGE: Heretical napping

AT LARGE: Heretical napping

I have a confession to make. I'm an auction junkie. I think, like most people, I started out small, going along to the occasional record collector's thing, then scaling up. Memorabilia, that sort of stuff. I've never joined the big leagues, the suited types who nod imperceptibly at Christie's to acquire the works of the modern masters, but I suspect this may be only a financial limitation.

I've been a bit hesitant about eBay since I got burned by a fraudulent collector and the site's anti-fraud measures turned out to be nothing but words. But even that hasn't stopped me. Just recently I was on there looking for an out-of-print book. A day or so before the close of the auction, I received an e-mail from someone (not the seller of the book) who claimed to have a copy of the book that they would be willing to sell me, at a much lower price than the actual item was going for. He even e-mailed me a few select (non-consecutive) pages, scanned in high-resolution, as a sampler.

The catch (of course there is a catch) was that I would receive the entire book in this manner. He had only one copy, and he was more than willing to share it with other fans of the genre, but he didn't want to part with his prize. He was charging for it, he said, only as much as was needed to cover the cost of scanning and e-mailing. I didn't quite believe this, of course, since it implied that he scanned it afresh every time he sold one - which would seem something of a waste.

In the end, I didn't win the book in the auction. After the auction had closed, I received another e-mail, again imploring me to buy the book in the form of 384 tiff images (the intrepid seller apparently has not heard of Acrobat). Again, I declined.

The whole incident stuck in my mind, though, largely because the second e-mail arrived the very same day I finally gave in to my baser desires and joined Napster. There I was, having managed to convince myself that sharing MP3 files for free with like-minded fans was not piracy, was not copyright violation, was not stealing food from the mouth of Madonna's crying infant, when this mad book scanner shows up.

What Napster people do is essentially identical to what he was doing. They buy music on CD (thus placing food into the mouth of aforementioned infant), convert it into MP3 files of varying quality, and they let people out there know they have it. Come and get it, ding-a-ling-a-ling. Others can then take what they want, without giving Madonna nor any member of her burgeoning family so much as a moment's consideration. Since it is non-commercial (neither Napster nor any of its members charges for the MP3s), it falls through a gap in copyright law that allows for "reasonable use" such as sharing with your buddies.

Sounds like the greatest thing since instant porridge, right? Except that Napster's primary function is not really to share the MP3s around, but to put you in touch with several million buddies you never thought you had. "Reasonable use" means you can copy a couple of songs onto a tape and give it to your friend without getting a fine. One person buying a CD and 300,000 people listening to it all of a sudden looks very much like wholesale theft.

So why does Napster seem so defensible, while the guy with 384 tiffs sounds like a crook? Because Napster is so easy. Downloading 384 individually scanned pages from a book sounds like a lot of hard work. It sounds like something you're not meant to do. Like climbing into the bank through the high back window - if you were supposed to do it, it would be much simpler.

If it were as easy to share entire books electronically as it is to share MP3s, I suspect the book industry would now be looking down a very nasty barrel.

My mind is cast back, as I'm sure is yours, to the early days of mechanical printing, when distribution of books was taken out of the hands of the religious scribes who laboriously copied each and every letter and then jealously guarded their work. Printing presses meant books could be reproduced quickly and distributed cheaply, so everyone could have one.

Back then, it led to the Reformation and lots of people getting burnt at the stake. I suspect Napster's situation will be ultimately less messy.

Matthew JC. Powell has found that few people on Napster share his musical tastes. MP3s of Meco's early works should be sent to

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