Much ado about Napster

Napster's fiercely efficient marketplace for bootleg music is more Space Age than Star Trek, more menacing than Microsoft, and significantly cooler than Britney Spears.

But what a lot of people don't realize is that this music-sharing Web site is just the latest edition of a very old news story. More than a decade ago, teens were swapping copyrighted software in the virtual backrooms of dial-in bulletin boards.

At 2,400 baud (a three-legged tortoise in comparison to today's bullet train T1 connections), it took a while to trade software. And after your mom picked up the phone for the third time in an hour, it became clear it might make more sense just to walk down to Software Etc. and actually buy that copy of "King's Quest II." But this didn't stop a lot of us from trying to get something for nothing.

A little less than a decade later, kids are still getting together to swap the fruits of other people's mental labor, with the gracious assistance of Internet facilitators.

In a sense, Napster's faster, better, and slicker, but this smooth extension of old-fashioned software piracy is nothing new: It presents many of the same challenges the software market has faced all along.

It's tempting to view the situation as a case of the virtual chickens coming home to roost. While it's true that Napster allows consumers to trade bootleg music files, how much sympathy can consumers really be expected to have for an industry that charges $16.99 for a piece of optical-quality polycarbonate plastic that costs only a few dollars to record, press, and market?

But competition between gray-market products (like Napster and its more flexible, more obscure cousin, Gnutella) and legitimate music vendors won't be governed by price alone.

Like so much in life, the situation is a slurry of ever-shifting factors. A picture of the music industry's future is beginning to emerge. It includes consumer honesty (or lack thereof), law-enforcement vigilance, online distribution alternatives, and constantly evolving software - and it's much brighter than many experts have suggested.

1. The music industry will not collapse.

VCR piracy didn't destroy the cinema. Audio piracy hasn't destroyed the concert hall. And while it's fair to argue that Napster - and other MP3-distributing software like Gnutella - steals faster and better, the principle's the same.

Regardless of how much trading pirates do, there will remain legitimate channels for purchasing music, and people willing to do the purchasing.

2. Napster - and similar technologies - will never be completely destroyed.

Executives at the Recording Industry Association of America no doubt fantasize about firing a single jurisprudential torpedo directly into Napster's central server, causing a chain reaction that will wipe out online music piracy. This is unlikely to happen, even in light of the recent successful lawsuit against MP3.com which was taken to court for having illegally copied an enormous quantity of music.

But even if this is a sign of things to come, no amount of legal action can completely eradicate software that allows people to copy and move files - including music files - across the Internet.

Precedent has shown that as a society, we tend to allow the existence of technology that lets people break copyrights. Witness the VCR, the Diamond Rio (a portable MP3 player), and the writable CD - all of which have passed through significant legal hurdles.

And all the legal firepower and online enforcement in the world will be insufficient to stop illegal music trading once and for all. Grassroots systems like Gnutella and FreeNet can evade any sort of legally mandated shutdown simply by being dispersed and flexible. The files will keep moving, and the pirates will keep swapping their illicit electronic booty.

3. Society will make a collective judgment that allows artists and producers to continue to be reimbursed for their work.

"It's a valid right for the original creator to determine under which conditions their content is accessed," says Andrew Farrow, the head of business development for Magex, a company that provides commerce solutions for online distributors of digital content.

"The creator has put a lifetime of expertise and creative energy into that piece of music and should be able to set the requirements for how it's accessed. It's not just about the first person who accesses it - it's the nth person after that."

Most people, I think, would agree.

As a society, we make a lot of mistakes. But over time, we've come to some collective judgments. One of these is that theft is bad, and that ideas - which require real work and real effort to create and distribute - can be property, too.

"Ultimately society makes certain judgments - and history and practicality are on my side," says Mr. Farrow. For those who believe there should be a bond of trust between artistic creators and consumers, there's some rough weather ahead.

Should we worry about the health of the precious commercial link between artist and audience? Yes. But common sense says that the link will be preserved. Music distributors who bring down prices, creatively increase consumer options, and plunge into the Internet's savage new environment should find that even Napster can't shut down the marketplace.

*James Norton is on the staff of the Monitor's Electronic Edition, csmonitor.com, where this article first appeared.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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