Web Chat: Napster lawsuit a blip on the screen for future file sharing

Recent efforts by music industry representatives to halt transactions of copyrighted music over the Internet will ultimately be defeated by technology.

Call it the latest exercise in litigation futility. The Recording Industry Association of America recently won a federal lawsuit that, if upheld on appeal, will effectively halt the use of the popular Web music giant Napster Inc. to "share" copyrighted music. While Napster will be able to alter its business plan to bring profit to the music industry, it will never again be the shining example of new-generation Internet communication. And that's a shame.

The flawed concept behind the lawsuit is that by shutting down Napster, profits from record sales will no longer be threatened and the rightful owners of copyrighted music will receive the fruits of their labor. Don't buy that argument. Record sales in 1999 were up and continue to climb, even in the face free music. If the 20 million Napster users stopped buying compact discs, then somebody was making up for the losses, big time.

The real motive of the RIAA is to get a piece of the Napster pie, a company that went from startup to Internet music pioneer in less than a year. Expect the RIAA to settle with Napster out of court in an agreement that will include licensing and a steady profit stream to record companies.

The problem with the RIAA's profit-grab is that it might simply serve to ruin the Web's latest, greatest marvel.

It will push business away from a fee-based Napster to similar software that uses slightly different technology to "hide" music by moving it around to different servers periodically or storing it on private machines without a central search engine. The trend has already started and will continue until Napster is yesterday's news.

This brings us to technical detail that is glossed over in coverage of RIAA/Napster lawsuit.

Napster's users store the music on their PCs and servers. This means when I download an Mp3 file, it is not coming from Napster, it's coming from a private machine in Wichita or Paris or Istanbul. The central catalog is what a federal court decided makes Napster liable for the copyright infringement of its users. Why is a central catalog different than somebody simply handing me their copy of Led Zeppelin's Swan Song? This concept has yet to be explained with any authority in a courtroom or in the public discourse.

The fact is that this lawsuit will be moot by the time it is settled. There are Napster imitators already out there - and they are gaining steam.

Take Gnutella for example. The free software operates similarly to Napster, but music and files are not cataloged on a central server. In this way, RIAA and other music industry cronies do not have the ability to target a large corporation for supposed copyright infringement. If action is to be taken it will have to be against the users, one at a time. Suing individuals will prove to be too expensive and cumbersome to produce results for the music industry.

And Gnutella and its counterparts offer another feature that will prove to be a thorn in the side of the software industry - free file sharing for anything. That means a Gnutella user will be able to go online, find software that would normally cost them hundreds on the retail market and download it onto his or her computer in a matter of minutes. Protective measures like encryption have thus far proved futile against a deluge of hackers determined to make software and music free.

In the near future software will have to be free and so will music. Copyright in the computer age will be displaced by networks of technology savvy consumers that will not be willing to pay for the products they receive.

That is the bottom line.

Ideas?Feedback? Contact me at jimscripps@tahoe.com


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