Hey, Is It Really Stealing if You Wouldn't Have Bought It Anyway?

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Bless me, Judge Patel, for I have sinned.

I am normally an absolute moral rock. Just ask anybody here at TIME.com. Just three months ago, in the time I now sadly recognize as Before the Fall, I was an innocent, and pure, and un-Napstered. This was mainly because it was difficult for me to get Napster; we have a vicious and unyielding corporate firewall here at 1271 Avenue of the Americas, and I was using a World War II surplus dial-up modem at home.

But I had no moral qualms about Napster, and I didn't think of it as stealing. I liked the idea of it, even if I was too lazy to try it myself. I had the same relationship to Napster that the American Left used to have to socialism: In theory, it should work like a charm.

See, it will expand the market, I said. People will hear songs that they never heard before, and they will rush to the stores to buy the CDs. After all, nobody's going to download a whole album. Artists will be able to cut out the oppressive record companies (except, of course, for those fortunate artists signed to the enlightened companies that are part of the greater AOL Time Warner family) and get the audience and material rewards they deserve. Everyone will be rich, happy, fat and — did I mention rich?

Perhaps it's because I work in a medium, HTML text posted on web servers, that was Napstered before there was a Napster, but it didn't worry me. From day one, anyone who read my writings on TIME.com was free to copy and e-mail copies to 10 friends. You could do it right now. In fact, why don't you? Good luck is sure to follow for all your days.

It was then, morally snug, that I made the fateful decision to get what we now all fully recognize as the tools of El Diablo himself, a cable modem and a good set of computer speakers. And thus was I led into temptation.

What are the ethics of Napster, anyway? Is it wrong to, say, listen to a friend's Supertramp album (aesthetics aside, that is)? Say your friend bought a copy of "Breakfast in America" years ago, back when people mistakenly thought Roger Hodgson was cool. Say your friend wanted to share this ugly chapter in his life by playing "The Logical Song" for you. Is it wrong for you to listen to this song, even though you personally didn't pay for it? I think not.

And say, further, that both you and your friend have high-speed Internet connections, and that you don't want to keep bothering him (he's a busy man, after all) with requests to play that damn catchy tune for you again? Is it wrong to, say, just go get that song yourself, and bring it back to your hard drive so that you don't have to keep pestering this poor guy?

And say that this friend isn't really a friend at all, just some unknown figure at an IP address. But you could be friends, if you met. After all, you like the same music. You could have tea. And it's not really stealing if your friend gives you something. Is it?

And so it was that, with my moral compass fully demagnetized, I began to download. I started with a strict set of rules: I would download only things, say Springsteen bootlegs, that I could not buy anyway. From there it was a short step to saying I would take only things that I already had copies of, then to saying I could take things I wished I had copies of.

The slippery slope of course soon led straight to hell, and I knew I hit bottom last weekend when I for the first time downloaded an entire album, "Penthouse," by Luna. It was then (although maybe it was because my neighbor saw me listening to that godawful "Bonnie and Clyde" song) that I knew I had a moral problem.

"I can't believe you use Napster," Frank Pellegrini, my neighbor here at TIME.com, told me today. "Don't you think that you're stealing?" I told him that I didn't use to think so, but that lately I'd been having my doubts. "It's like being a waitress," our Frank said. "These artists depend on your royalties to live." Suddenly I felt like we were in the opening scene of "Reservoir Dogs" — and I was Mr. Pink.

So why is this stealing? The answer is, yes, I know, that TK million people downloaded songs from Napster last weekend, which is theory represents TK million in lost revenue for record companies. (See Frank Pellegrini's accompanying story for the actual figures. TK, by the way, is journalistic shorthand for "To Come.") On the other hand, c'mon: A lot of those downloads were in the Supertramp category, songs that nobody would download if they had to actually pay for. So is it theft to take something you wouldn't pay for? Wouldn't economists simply say that for those items the market has decided that the natural price is zero dollars?

Nobody calls it stealing when they copy and e-mail this article to 10 friends (are you sure wouldn't be happier doing just that? It's Fun!). Is the moral difference simply because the music guys have a different business model? I don't know. But I do know this: It's too easy, and too much fun, for any court to be able to stop.