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Trading music versus the music trade


As soon as U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel applied an injunction last Wednesday shutting down Napster, the internet info-bot that has helped millions of music fans locate and download digitized versions of commercial recordings, the music industry began to sing her praises.

"We're elated," said Lars Ulrich, drummer with the heavy rock group Metallica. His band had been at the forefront of the war against Napster, filing suit against the service and insisting that it evict several hundred Metallica-trading users from its rolls.

"This is not sharing," said Ulrich of Napster's file-swapping. "It's duplicating."

Noah Stone, director of the musicians' group Artists Against Piracy, was also celebrating Napster's court-ordered demise. "We believe that a company should not be able to co-opt other peoples' copyrights," he said in a statement to the press. "Napster the business, has shown no respect for the artists who create the music."

Hilary Rosen, head of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), chimed in, telling the trade magazine Hits : "I'm very happy and extraordinarily relieved."

This collective sigh of relief was premature. On Friday, hours before the service was to have been shut down, two federal appeals judges granted a stay on the injunction, allowing Napster to remain in operation for the time being.

Ultimately, the service's future will be decided in court, when the RIAA's suit against Napster goes to trial. But even if Napster is shut down, the basic technology will live on. Napster's basic idea -- creating a network of registered users who can share files with one another across the Web -- is too valuable to be tossed away simply because some people use it to illegally copy sound recordings. Already, rival services such as Scour and Gnutella have created their own networks for file swapping, while the emergence of anonymous file-sharing software like Freenet suggests the future possibility of a vast, Web-wide underground of music thieves.

Solving the problem posed by Napster is like trying to stuff the genie back into its bottle. At root, the Napster controversy isn't about file-sharing so much as a collision between two previously existing problems: The fact that there's no easy way for fans to try out new music; and the emergence of an online culture that believes anything that can be digitally copied should be freely shared.

It's going to take more than a single injunction to sort this mess out.

Why Napster was popular

What made Napster such a success was that it afforded free and easy access to a wide variety of music at a time when most consumers have almost no way to hear new music without buying new CDs. The process actually got under way a few years ago with the emergence of MP3, a data-compression technology that allowed computer users to "rip" the data off music CDs and store it in files small enough to be kept on a computer's hard drive.

The sound of MP3 files is nowhere near as good as CDs, but the convenience of being able to maintain a jukebox of several hundred songs on your PC more than made up for the loss of fidelity.

Moreover, the fact that MP3 files could be e-mailed as easily as scanned snapshots made it simple for one computer user to say to another, "Say, have you heard this song yet?" and swap files. Napster, with its huge network of registered users, made that process even easier. After you typed in the name of an artist or a song title, Napster would find a computer that had the desired MP3 file. All you had to do was download.

Back in the days before Napster, people relied on radio for musical variety. But radio has long since ceased to be a useful way to hear music. Many radio stations have given up music, opting for call-in shows and chat, while even those that do maintain a music-based format seldom have more than two dozen songs in their "active" playlist. In most of America, radio listeners can be tuned in all day, every day, and still hear less than a half-dozen new songs each week.

For a while, it seemed as if music video would be the adventurous listener's salvation. Over the years, MTV and its ilk have introduced dozens of new acts, from Duran Duran and Culture Club to Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit. These days, though, it takes a lot of work to watch videos on these channels. MTV devotes much of its prime programming time to such nonmusical fare as "Road Rules," "House of Style" and "The Tom Green Show." Things aren't much better over on VH1, where information-based shows like "Behind the Music," "VH1 Legends" and "The List" have largely replaced videos.

People have no place to turn anymore if they want to know what something not in the hit parade sounds like -- no place, that is, but their friends online.

In that sense, Napster probably has done the music industry some good. A recent survey suggests that Napster users bought more CDs than nonusers, and anecdotal evidence suggests many try out the music by downloading MP3 files via Napster before deciding to buy. This benefits the recording industry by giving artists a new means of exposure. After all, if you've never heard Modest Mouse or A Perfect Circle, how would you know if you'd like them? Take some reviewer's word for it?

But however much Napster might boost CD sales, that doesn't change the fact that Napster users end up with copies of recordings they didn't pay for. To say that Napster helps the recording industry is like saying that if somebody buys $100 worth of groceries each week, it's OK if they shoplift an additional $50 worth.

When radio was the way people heard music, they listened for free. But there are some significant differences between Napster and radio. To begin with, musicians made money from radio play because the stations paid performance royalties. There are some MP3 services, like My Play, that do pay royalties and which work to prevent users from copying MP3 files from albums they don't own. But that doesn't really help those who use the net as a means of finding new music.

It's also worth remembering that when you listen to the radio, all you keep is a memory of the music. With Napster, you have your own copy of the recording, a piece of property to be dealt with however you chose. Under current copyright law, that's theft, plain and simple.

But that sort of theft is almost considered a right by many internet users. It isn't that they're dishonest per se, but net culture has made such theft easy, almost alluring. Consider Usenet, the Internet's nexus of "newsgroups." Scroll through any of "binaries" groups -- the ones featuring digitized pictures, movies or sound files -- and you'll find thousands of copyrighted photos and videos, all free for the taking. It's a digital thieves' bazaar.

Much of what turns up in these groups is pornography, and nobody worries much about ripping off pornographers. But, the recording industry doesn't inspire much more sympathy than the porno trade. Most music fans feel that CDs are overpriced, that labels routinely rip off their artists, and that those in corporate suites are motivated more by greed than any love of music.

Even the wealth of individual musicians is seen by some as just cause to copy music without paying. "Because you've got all this money, all of a sudden you're disliked," complained Metallica's James Hetfield recently. "What does it mean to them that we've made so much?"

Looking for solutions

There are some solutions in the offing. Jupiter Communications, a Web research company, recently released a study suggesting that subscription services -- in which consumers get music digitally delivered for a set fee each month -- will eventually supplant services like Napster. But it's foolish to assume that any system will ever make computer users forget that they can copy or download files without paying, particularly when so many software developers offer free software or demo programs as a means of building business.

Getting users to respect copyright and understand that information is free only if the provider wants it to be is a Web-wide challenge that no single legal decision can solve. Ultimately, it's a matter of culture as much as technology, and developing a system for making people behave is a far greater challenge than writing software to prevent digital theft.

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