STEAL THIS SONG Why did Homer write the Iliad and the Odyssey? Why did Chaucer write The Canterbury Tales and John Milton Paradise Lost? Why did Emily Dickinson write her poems? Why did the unknown composer of The Londonderry Air (better known as the tune of Danny Boy) go to the trouble of writing a song at all? Why did Mozart compose and compose in a frenzy of creativity even when he knew it wouldnt solve his money problems? Why did Van Gogh continue to make paintings that would never make him a living? Ive been preoccupied with questions like these ever since Napster first came to light. Napster, of course, was the original music-sharing software, which allowed anyone with a computer to go online and make a perfect digital copy of a song, for nothing, by transferring the song-file data from the CD of someone who owned it. Let me repeat: Napster let you get the song for nothing. Napster tried to make this a business, inviting people to subscribe to its service, but the music industry, terrified that music file-sharing would put an end to the sales of CDs and records, got a court order stopping it. While Napster was down, independent programmers devised music-sharing variations even slicker than Napster. They have names like Gnutella, Morpheus, Kazaa and Grokster. They let anyone with Internet access share music with anyone else who has the same simple equipment. Its called peer-to-peer or P2P sharing. (Ask your kids. Theyll explain it to you.) Now the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), in a pure panic, is going after the 13-year-old in his bedroom, the sophomore in his dorm room, and the grandmother in her den who are downloading all those songs for nothing. In a full-page ad in The New York Times last Thursday, June 26, the RIAA and other recording organizations announced that they will now sue anyone--got that? ANYONE!--who downloads files of copyrighted songs for nothing. They call such music file-sharing stealing and piracy and compare it to shoplifting. Expect the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), whose movie DVDs can likewise be shared for nothing, soon to follow suit. The RIAA and MPAA probably have the law on their side. Yes, to get a copy of Eminems last album for nothing is to undermine the copyright laws and to take money out of Eminems pockets. Likewise, to download Norah Joness nice little album that won all those Grammys is to prevent nice little Norah from getting her full monetary due. And to pirate a song or film for nothing is certainly to snatch a buck from the giant recording and film-distribution companies. To all of which, after giving it much thought, I can only say, So what? I dont care if Eminem doesnt get rich. I dont care if nice little Norah makes nothing from her album. I dont care if Paul and Ringo and the estate of Elvis never get another royalty check. I dont care if EMI, Vivendi, Sony and AOL Time Warner never make another dime out of their recording subsidiaries. The RIAA claims that if free music file-sharing is allowed to continue, musicians will stop writing music, since there wont be anything in it for them, and well all be the poorer for that. Thats where I think the RIAA is wrong. Which gets us back to Homer, Chaucer, Milton, Emily, Mozart, Van Gogh and Danny Boy. My premise is this: True artists dont care about money. No, let me amend that: True artists may care about money, but money is not why they create art. Homer wasnt in it for the money. Neither was Chaucer, and certainly not Milton. Emily Dickinson? Dont make me laugh. Legend has it that Mozart was obsessed with money, but he was even more obsessed with making music and would have done it even if it meant starvation. Likewise Van Gogh. And the composer of the tune to Danny Boy probably came up with it while tending his sheep on an Irish hillside--he just couldnt help himself. He certainly had no plans to buy a little villa in Beverly Hills with his royalties. I like to think that Eminem and nice little Norah would likewise keep writing and singing songs, even if there were no money in it. I like to think theyre true artists. This is what I hope will happen: Those who, like the RIAA and the MPAA, are trying to put roadblocks around the Internet will fail. The programmers and the kids (often one and the same) will stay a step ahead of them. Finally, the Internet police will give up. As a result, within ten, at most twenty years, every form of art that can be digitized--every song, every movie, every book--will be available for free to everyone who owns a computer. The recording, movie and book distribution industries as we know them will collapse, though there will continue to be a cottage industry for those who, driven by nostalgia, demand actual vinyl records and paper books, or want to watch movies in large groups at movie theaters instead of in their own, far superior, home entertainment centers. Art that cannot be digitized and passed through wires or the ether, such as sculpture and painting, will flourish, in part because of the very fact that it cannot be translated by Boolean algebra and is therefore extra-special. Art that depends on live performances--rock concerts, live theater, novel and poetry readings--will likewise flourish, and thats how most singers, actors and writers will make their livings. Finally, art itself will be more malleable than ever, since every digitized novel can be re-edited instantly by anyone who receives it on his computer, and every song changed to suit the listener--much as those who recited the Iliad modified it with each retelling, often, I suspect, improving it. This audience-editing, of course, is already happening and can never be stopped. What about the poor artists? They will continue to create art. Why? For the same reasons Homer and Emily Dickinson and Mozart did: because they want to be famous or because they need to be heard or because they have something they need to say or sing, or because, well, they just cant help it. Maybe theyll have full-time jobs doing something else, like selling insurance or folding pretzels, and will be artists on the side. Maybe the U.S. government will actually support artists seriously, for a change, as other governments do around the world. Or maybe artists will rely on patrons to support them, as Michelangelo relied on the Medicis in Renaissance Florence. Speaking of the Renaissance, I also think this: In the end, the music we hear and the movies we see and the books we read will be all the better for their digital availability. No longer will music, movies and books be the products of greed. Now theyll be the products of need--the need of the artist to make something special, so special that bits and bytes, zeroes and ones, cannot reduce it to anything less than art, and the money it makes is not part of its specialness. There is something in the act of artistic creation so satisfying, so far beyond the satisfaction of a full bank account, that we dont need to worry that the rock bands or the novelists or the filmmakers will go away. Those who write potboilers just to make money (Tom Clancy? John Grisham?) and those who make bad music and bad movies with nothing but an eye to the bottom line (The Backstreet Boys? 2 Fast 2 Furious?) will probably go away forever. To which we can all say: Good riddance. In ten years, maybe twenty at the most, the truer, purer artists will once again take center stage. And then we can all say: Welcome home, Homer.