Stealing? Not Us, Say Music Downloaders

The message is a little confusing, but three-quarters of Internet denizens who download music files don’t think they’re stealing, and they don’t care if the music is copyrighted, according to a new report from the Pew Internet Project.

“Those who share music with other Internet users think they are doing the high-tech equivalent of swapping cassette tapes with their friends,” Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, said in a press release. “They don’t agree with record companies and music artists who contend that Napster users are doing the same thing as walking into a record store and swiping a CD.”

The latter finding — that people don’t care about copyrights — is a bit disturbing. Sometimes people are stealing, such as when they download songs they don’t already own in other media, such as a CD, fully intending to keep and listen to the music without buying it. (That’s assuming they are actually able to go out any buy it, which isn’t always the case.)

But many of the people in the survey said they’d bought at least some of the music they got online. I’m glad to hear it.

One of the most interesting findings suggests that people aren’t downloading lots of music, at least not at the moment. Still, almost 30 percent said they had more than 25 songs on their computers. As hard disks get bigger and Internet connections speed up, that number is bound to grow.

The survey was released just before one of the most pivotal portions of the Napster case. Next week, a federal appeals court will hear Napster’s appeal of a ruling that it should be shut down for copyright infringement. More than Napster’s future is at risk here. Stay tuned.

California’s Governor Doesn’t Get It

Gov. Gray Davis of California has vetoed a bill (Mercury News) that would have brought a modicum of fairness to the Internet sales tax scene. The legislation would have required companies with retail stores in California to charge sales taxes on items they sell to Californians through the Internet.

A gaping loophole gives companies the green light to let customers dodge the taxes that help pay for essential services. Now this loophole, which the bill would have closed without even considering the really serious Internet taxation issues, has been endorsed by a governor who plainly cares more about kowtowing to the richest industry in history than ensuring the state’s fiscal soundness. Watch other states race to see who can be more irresponsible.

“Imposing sales taxes on Internet transactions at this point in its young life would send the wrong signal about California’s international role as the incubator of the dot-com community,” said the veto message over Davis’ signature.

Whoever wrote that line was either misinformed or deceitful.

AB 2412, the legislation in question, was aimed at companies like Borders and Barnes & Noble. The bookstore chains claim that their Internet sales sites are totally unrelated to their stores. Thus, they say, they don’t have to charge sales taxes even in states where they’re doing business from physical locations — the line typically drawn to determine who’s required to charge sales taxes.

You can’t blame the retailers. They’re facing the competition from the mail-order industry and online giants like Amazon, which use a longstanding loophole that gives them the ability not to charge sales taxes for out-of-state sales in states where they don’t have a nexus. That’s the bigger, and ultimately more important, issue that Congress will have to face someday.

But the pretense that Barnes & Noble’s online arm isn’t connected at all to the stores is ludicrous, even if it’s now legal. Davis vetoed a bill that endorsed common sense. He bowed to the richest industry in history, the technology companies that claim to disdain government but then lobby successfully for an industrial policy that undermines Main Street.

Watch now as other retailers with stores in California race to set up “unaffiliated” Web sites. I hope someone will hold Gray Davis to account when his ill-considered veto comes back to haunt us all.

Peer to Peer, Face to Face

Last week, when I was in Washington on other business, I stopped by the National Public Radio studios to do one of my periodic question-and-answer segments on the Morning Edition program. The topic this time was peer-to-peer technology, and here’s how the (edited) discussion went.

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