by L. Neil Smith

Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise

Turn off your light, police-a man.
Turn off your light, police-a man.
We’re moving on, police-a man
We’ll soon be gone, police-a man.
— The Whiskey Hill Singers

Acouple of weeks ago I had a bittersweet experience that — at least for me — put the recent flap over Napster in a new light.

Napster, in case you’ve been at the bottom of the Marianas Trench for the past several months, is a service on the internet that allows individuals to swap music tracks off CDs and other media. I’ve never been to the site; even state-of-the-art PCs, I’m informed, take a long while to download files from Napster, and my early 133 MHz Pentium with its mere 16 megs of RAM probably isn’t up to it.

I’d missed a contract deadline at the time, so was only vaguely aware that lawyers representing the record industry had successfully sued Napster to get them to stop. I recall noticing there was something wrong with the judge’s ruling, but by then I was into the final grueling week and didn’t have time to examine the matter, although Rush Limbaugh was pontificating about it in a tone that usually tells me he’s not only wrong (as he was about the “Whackos from Waco” and black helicopters) but knows that he’s wrong.

An exception I never fail to make to the most stringent schedule, is the Wednesday Margarita Tour. Established some time ago with our closest skating friends because there isn’t any open skating time at our local rink on Wednesday evenings, we choose a different restaurant every week — in a town with more restaruants per capita than any other city in the world — and go there for dinner and to sample their contribution to the fine art of combining lime juice and tequila.

That particular evening, one of our friends was telling us how wonderful Napster was. She’s quite a music buff (one week she and my wife sang all the lyrics to “American Pie” in a scene reminiscent of the lobster restaurant recital in “My Best Friend’s Wedding”) and claimed she could find anything — anything — on Napster.

I gave her a challenge I thought she couldn’t meet. About 39 years ago, there was a record (anybody out there remember vinyl?) that had enormous influence in my life. I was in high school, deeply into folk music. A friend and I formed a duo called the Shady Grove Singers and played everywhere we could to any audience that would listen and, hopefully, pay. I was 17 and it was a very good year. We had lots of fun only some of which I can mention here, made plenty of music, won a contest, fell in love, and eventually, as high school sweethearts will, went our separate ways.

She got the record.

I guess that was only fair, it was hers to begin with. But ever since, I’ve been looking — in vain — for my own copy of the damned thing, in every used record store I could find, and eventually on the internet. It went out of print the same year it was made and would never, ever be reissued. Even finding mention of it online is exceedingly rare, and in the end, I gave up hope.

Until our margarita skating friend smugly brought me a CD she’d burned with four cuts from that ancient record I thought I’d never hear again. There’s no describing that experience, listening to music I’d only heard inside my head for four decades. All the magic of that time in my life came rushing back to me for a little while. I confess I very nearly wept to hear the music of my youth, although my wife and daughter looked at me quite oddly.

The record? The Whiskey Hill Singers, featuring Dave Guard (of the Kingston Trio), Judy Henske (who made Janis Joplin sound like a Girl Scout selling cookies and was arguably the best urban blues singer in the world), and some other people I don’t recall.

I have “Railroad Bill”, “Wild Rippling Water”, “Banks of the Ohio” (my favorite folksong), and the incomparable “Shine the Light on Me”, the one, quoted above, that almost started the tears, although it’s one of the goofiest songs ever written. I’m still missing “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (Henske’s masterpiece, rerecorded later, but not better, on her solo album), “We’re the World’s Last Authentic Playboys”, and I can’t remember what else.

Understand clearly: there was no way I could have heard that music again, relived that precious slice of my life, felt all of those old feelings, without Napster. Moreover, no record company lost anything because I did, because no record company is ever going to reissue that record. I know, because I’ve looked into it — for 39 years.

Just as important, understand that no performer will get a dime because Napster is shut down. That’s not how record companies work. Somehow, mysteriously, even if higher record sales resulted from an inavailabilty of Napster tracks (which I guarantee won’t happen), there would be no additional royalties, due to returns or fees or taxes or a Royal Fizzbin in the dark on Tuesdays. That’s how record companies work, ask anyone who’s ever had anything to do with them.

This isn’t about money, it’s about power.

My guess is that, if anything, Napster increased record sales by helping satisfied customers pass out free samples. Taking Napster to court was a damned stupid thing for the record industry to do, in a collapsing, crap-filled market.

Anyone who thinks Napster violated intellectual property rights in some new, unprecedented way needs to answer some questions. If you’re my age, did you ever swap comic books with other kids on your block? How is that different from what folks do on Napster? Shouldn’t kids be forced to buy their own copies of Plastic Man and Little Lulu, so the writers and artists and publishers — especially the publishers — get all the loot that’s rightfully theirs?

Ever patronize used book stores? How is that different from what folks do on Napster? Writers and artists and publishers — especially publishers — don’t get a piece of that action, either. Wouldn’t you say that used book stores should be outlawed and shut down?

Or used record stores, for that matter? What good are they, anyway?

Here’s the big one: do you check books out of public libraries? It may surprise you to learn that I’ve always detested libraries for the same reason musicians are supposed to detest Napster: people too cheap to pay for it still get access to my work for nothing. Yet Napster is regarded as some kind of sleazy bootleg operation, while libraries are the temples — the very temples — of Jeffersonian democracy.

Nonsense. Libraries are the Napsters of the 18th century.

Never mind what I said about detesting libraries. Fact is, I get letters all the time from individuals who’ve gone to all the trouble of Xeroxing my books because some titles are out of print and not available. They want me to forgive them. But there’s nothing to forgive. If they love my work that much — and would buy it if they could — how can I be angry at them?

I once had an novel by one of my favorite authors — H. Beam Piper’s Murder in the Gun Room — Xeroxed because it was out of print and would probably never be back in. Happily, I was wrong and I bought a copy as soon as I could. But the question is, what would Piper have wanted? He’s a good case to consider: he died because he was starving to death writing material 15 years ahead of its time.

But would he have wanted his voice heard by another mind?

Or would he have wanted Xerox outlawed and shut down?


Reprinted from The Libertarian Enterprise for Number 115, April 2, 2001

Apparently, Neil didn’t know about this, or he’d have had a copy. Murder in the Gun Room was re-issued in 1993 by Old Earth Books, Baltimore, Maryland. A facimile reprint of the first edition (1953), it includes a biographical forward and an extensive Piper bibliography, both by L. Fred Ramsay. — Editor

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