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Teaching the Fine Art of Respect for All Copyrighted Material

August 14, 2000|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

The recent hoopla and court cases about Napster have brought the issue of copyright and intellectual property to the front pages. Napster allows computer users to share music files, including copyrighted songs, without permission from the artists or record companies.

I've talked with many people, including my own children, who admit to using Napster to download and share songs that they might otherwise have had to pay for at a music store.

My son Will, who, as far as I know, has never stolen anything from a store or an individual, admits that he's "stolen" music using Napster even though he knows that it's not entirely kosher. When I asked him why he thinks it's OK to download from Napster but not OK to steal from record stores, he said that with Napster "I won't get in trouble." He added, "Unlike a CD, the digital file didn't cost anyone anything," though he did understand that it cost a substantial amount of time and money to create the original recording. I asked my daughter Katherine and three of her 16-year-old friends what they thought about Napster, and all four girls said they thought that it was OK as long as they weren't selling illegal copies.

Kids aren't the only ones downloading music that they're not paying for. My friend Mark, a well-paid professional in his 30s, admitted that he used Napster to assemble a large music collection. He knows that it's "wrong," but he does it anyway.

I too have downloaded a few songs from Napster, but in every case they were from CDs that I already own. I guess I don't think it's stealing to make a copy of music that I already own, even though what I'm doing isn't sanctioned by the people who own the copyright to the music.

What's more, I've been known to make Xerox copies of newspaper and magazine articles to pass around to my friends. Oops, even the use of Xerox as a generic term for copying could be considered a sin because it's a registered trademark.

I'm confessing to these crimes not to set a bad example but to point out that I'm not claiming to come from a position of moral superiority. When it comes to copyright violations, I have indeed "inhaled." Yet, having admitted that I've strayed over the line and allowed members of my family to do likewise doesn't mean that I think it's right.

As a parent, I feel a special responsibility to set a good example. Stealing, whether it's music, books, software or physical goods is wrong. Artists who create music for a living have a right to control what happens to their work. The same is true for photographers and, for that matter, newspaper columnists like myself.

I own copyrights, and yes, I've been ripped off on numerous occasions. When I search for my own name on the Internet, I sometimes come across Web sites that have re-posted my columns verbatim.

Even Al Gore--whom I will probably vote for--has stolen from me. The Internet safety tips for kids on Gore's campaign Web site ( was taken virtually word for word from my Web site, I don't mind the Gore campaign using the material, but I wish they would credit the source.

I have certainly discussed the issue of copyrights with my kids and have let them know that I feel that it's wrong. I've told my kids that I'm willing to buy them a reasonable number of CDs and have encouraged them to use their allowance to buy other music that they absolutely must own. I'm not worried about copyright police showing up in the middle of the night to haul my kids off to prison, but I do worry about raising kids--for that matter an entire generation of kids--who have no respect for intellectual property.

Although I hope to at least limit my kids' use of material that they haven't paid for, I'm not naive or self-righteous enough to believe that they will never download copyrighted music, copy a CD or scan a photograph without permission of the author. But I want them to be aware that when they do these things, they are doing something wrong. I want them to think twice about it.

Even Howard King, the Los Angeles attorney who represents Metallica and Dr. Dre in their cases against Napster, acknowledged in an interview that teaching kids to respect copyrights, while important, has to be put into a broader context. "I think it's important to teach kids not to violate the rights of artists, but as a parent, I'd be more upset if I caught my kids using alcohol or illegal drugs."

As for me, I've erased all those MP3 music files on my hard drive because I think it sets a bad example even though I don't think it's immoral or necessarily illegal to make copies of songs that I already own.

I think it's also important for parents and teachers to talk with their kids about how they use other people's material in their student papers, personal Web sites and other projects. It's pretty common for kids to grab photographs, maps and other illustrations from the Internet for use in term papers. That may also be considered fair use, but I don't think it's fair to use such material without crediting the source and I urge teachers not to accept papers with such graphics unless the student does credit the source.


Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached at His Web site is at Recent PC Focus columns are available at

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