Napster seems the essence of Internet freedom - with the emphasis on "free." The website's users - 58 million and counting - have been able to swap music online, exchanging titles that can cost up to $20 a pop at a music store.
Only one problem: By anyone's standards, this cuts into the profits of artists and recording companies that are due them under copyright law. Napster reduces a big incentive to create new music.
A federal appeals court panel made that strong point on Monday in largely sustaining a lower-court decision ordering Napster not to promote any swapping of copyrighted music.
Avid music traders who flooded the site last weekend in anticipation of the ruling made their own point: The exchange of music on the Internet has grown so popular it isn't likely to stop, whatever courts rule.
Other ways of swapping are being developed for the Web which may be less legally exposed than Napster. So the law and the technology will likely remain in flux on this issue.
The smartest strategy for the music industry is to figure out how to use the Web to sell its music while still protecting copyright interests. This is what German music giant Bertelsmann had in mind last fall when it joined forces with Napster to develop a fee-based version of the online swapping service that would generate income for companies and artists. Other music companies haven't leapt aboard this express, hoping the courts will effectively shut down Napster and other online traders and allow a return to business as usual - selling music on CDs.
They'd be wise to reconsider. Napster could soon be down, but the idea behind it certainly isn't out.
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