Is sharing with friends illegal? Although we all learned to share as kids, doing the same thing online has been called wrong, and even a crime, in disputes over music, games - and needlepoint patterns.

Yes, needlepoint patterns. The stitching world is up in arms over pattern exchanges like "Pattern Piggies Unite!" Pattern designers fear the loss of income and careers if hobbyists - often older, rural residents - can trade individual, scanned patterns online for free, rather than buy entire copyrighted pattern books from distant stores.

Such sharing of files over the Internet has dominated tech news lately. Media industry lawyers have battled so-called "peer to peer" exchanges, whose users insist that the free flow of information this new technology makes possible must override traditional copyright laws.

Although the Napster and DVD encryption cases have gotten the most press, the needlepoint case shows that these programs can be used with anything that can be stored digitally. File exchange services have already sprung up for books and video games - if the courts haven’t shut them down by the time you read this.

What’s the difference between taping a song or photocopying a needlepoint pattern for a friend, and doing it over the Net? Either way, the author loses the royalty for his work, unless your friend then buys his own copy. "I’m only sharing with my friends, and their friends," said the operator of Pattern Piggies.

"Share and share alike" made sense in preschool. But isn’t it different to "share" online - with five million of your closest friends? File sharing programs let you look for a copy not only at one friend’s computer, but on the computers of everyone who logs onto the exchange.

A publisher or author may not care about a single stolen copy, and certainly wouldn’t spend money to sue over it. But the ease of online digital copying raises the financial stakes. In fact, the FBI has raided several "warez" sites that posted equally illegal software copies.

On the other hand, even publishers must recognize the benefits of distributing patterns, songs, or any other content through file exchanges. Delivery is immediate, rather than waiting for a UPS shipment, or driving to the store. You also receive a perfect copy - no blurry photocopies, or static-filled home-made tapes. With the ability to search the files of exchange participants worldwide, "out of stock" signs may be history.

Despite these benefits, copying material, online or off, clearly remains illegal under today’s laws. Copyright piracy, even among friends, harms all those who depend on the law to profit from their work - even needlepoint designers.

In fact, legal scholars worry when society winks at the law. "Law is very vulnerable when it makes orders that don’t get enforced," commented Charles Nesson of Harvard Law School on the Napster case.

The free market, however, has solved past conflicts between promoting new technology while protecting profits.

In the 1970's, for example, VCR makers were sued for making it too easy to copy movies. Yet today, movie makers sell countless reasonably priced prerecorded videocassettes, even though it is still easy to copy them.

In an earlier era, sheet music publishers sued to stop player piano scrolls. The publishers feared the new technology so much they took the case to the Supreme Court - and lost. Yet royalties from recorded music have made today’s music publishers wealthy.

No one would deny that advances in technology that made it easier and cheaper to listen to music, or view movies, have expanded sales, and created new markets. Just as Napster’s fans proclaim, maybe copying does promote buying.

Perhaps publishers - of patterns or songs - must instead create new business models and billing methods, to exploit the improved distribution systems that file exchange technology has made possible.

For example, some people will repeatedly download shareware to avoid paying for it. But most of us will pay a small fee to avoid that hassle - particularly once developers added an expiration code.

Who wouldn’t pay a few pennies to buy a genuine product online, legally? Why pay for the paper, printing plant overhead or distributor’s profit margin?

As a Stanford law professor commented on Napster, "If the (common) law does not accord with the view of the common kid, then the law will change." If change in the law is inevitable to keep up with the ways we use new technology, content sellers that want to survive must adapt their pricing and distribution models to those changes as well.

Copyright 2000 Stanley P. Jaskiewicz, Esquire

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