WHEN IT COMES to Napster, a Web site that has allowed music fans to swap songs online, ours is a house divided.
"It is stealing," my wife and I say, referring to the Napster-assisted practice of duplicating copyrighted songs without paying royalties.
"It is sampling," say our teen-age sons, who contend that the online exchange of music ultimately stimulates sales of CDs, thereby insuring that royalties are paid.
Napster has been a topic of supper-table debate at our house over the past months, ever since the phone line started getting tied up by these cyberspace excursions.
Like many family debates, this one has traveled all over the lot.
At one point I heard myself advocating the nobility of shelling out money for CDs, a practice that, as the kids quicklly pointed out, I rarely engage in.
"The last music you guys bought was a Simon and Garfunkel album," said one.
I replied that even though I know virtually nothing about modern music and next to nothing about the process of capturing and copying digital music - it happens upstairs, in the dark of night, when I am asleep - I know right from wrong, sometimes. This whole copying without paying scheme didn't feel right to me.
Mostly the kids have responded to such talk by rolling their eyes and muttering something about "the fogey factor." But from time to time they have produced evidence supporting their position that the exchange of free music is a good thing.
One day, for instance, a story clipped from the New York Times appeared on the refrigerator message board. The story reported that throughout America, many lesser-known bands were happily putting their music on the Internet for users to copy. Band members spoke of the online activity as a sort of equal-opportunity jukebox, a way to build an audience for their music without being under the thumb of recording companies.
Accompanying the article posted on the fridge was a handwritten note from one of the family's pro-Napster forces. The note declared: "It is hard being right all the time."
The refrigerator propagandist failed to note that the unknown musicians wanted their tunes to be downloaded. Much of the music handled by Napster was the work of musicians whose works copyrighted on major labels were downloaded without their consent. This distinction did not slip by Judge Marilyn Patel, whose injunction in federal court in San Francisco this week to shut down Napster was stayed yesterday.
In our house, the judge's ruling had the effect of spurring more late-night cyberspace activity, searching for one more tune by Redman and hunting for alternate sites providing free music.
The ruling also has shifted the terms of our supper-table debate. The teen-agers concede that what's happened in the San Francisco courtroom may eventually end up pulling the plug on Napster. But they contend the concept of putting free music on the Internet will not only survive, it will probably be adopted by the recording companies and used as a marketing device. "It is like the radio," one kid said, referring to one of a string of technological developments that the recording industry has first opposed as an enemy, then embraced as a sales tool.
The more I read about this Napster squabble, the more I tended to agree with the teen-agers. Napster has drawn a great big crowd in very short time, an accomplishment that seems to have online giants such as AOL and Yahoo licking their chops in anticipation of the day they can set up some sort of paying subscription system for delivering digital music.
The recording artists are sharp enough to realize that the widespread "stealing" of their music is an indication of how popular they are. And I bet a few of them see the Internet as a chance, down the road, to break free of the hold of recording companies.
I see contradictions everywhere. The recording companies, for example, argue that Napster-like activities deprive musicians and composers of hard-earned royalties. Yet some musicians and composers say that historically the record companies, bastions of high profits and low morals, have used exotic accounting procedures to do the same thing. And while Napster preaches the value of "sharing" music, it is not a fan of sharing its software with folks who want to set up similar sites.
Still the idea of copying a creative work, without the creator getting paid, rubs me the wrong way. I tried to hammer this point home the other night during another kitchen-table discussion. I likened the Napster situation to that of an author whose new book suddenly appeared, without his permission, on the Internet.
"If you were the author, wouldn't someone have stolen something from you?" I asked. Not necessarily, one teen replied. If they published one chapter to arouse interest, it could be good marketing, he said.
In other words, the kid was telling my wife and me that our generation has to get used to the fact that our favorite tunes, as well as other creative goods, are going to be delivered in new packages.