Fears of a Tech Pioneer

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As the chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, I have long appreciated the power of networking and of peer-to-peer file-sharing systems such as Napster. And I understand both the Internet ethos that whatever technology makes possible is inevitable and the vague precept that content should be (or will inexorably be) free.

But it bothers me. I'm not a lawyer, but it sure feels like Napster is in the middle of violations of copyrights on a large scale and that this is not a good thing. (I say this despite the fact that I have, through a venture capital firm in which I participate, an investment in Napster.)

Clearly, the fact that it is so easy to copy digital material makes it hard to outlaw doing so, and people seem inclined to do what is easy and fun. Theft in the digital world, whether of software or of songs, does not seem to carry the moral freighting of theft in the material world--of shoplifting a CD, for example. Yet the fact that we may not be able to prevent theft on a small scale does not mean we should condone it on a large scale.

After their revolution, the French abolished their copyright system, but they quickly reversed course when the consequences were seen: a decline in the quantity and quality of what was published. I have a similar concern for quality in our time. Without enforceable copyright--perhaps with only advertising revenue to support the creators of content--how great will content be? The precarious financial situation of websites that are trying to create great original material should give us all pause.

I reject the argument that it is O.K. to do something simply because it is possible. We must take responsibility for our actions and their collective results. What's at issue is the ability of our institutions to implement our collective desires as a society--such as allowing creative artists to be financially rewarded for their works.

But even more is at stake than access to a song. The most promising 21st century technologies--genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics--are information technologies. They have the power to create wealth, but these bits of digital information can also be dangerous. If we can't muster the collective will to protect the rights of artists to their books and music, how will we ever control access to the dangerous knowledge provided by these powerful new technologies? Taking both individual and collective responsibility for the consequences of peer-to-peer sharing of digital material is essential preparation for what is to come.