Napster: A New Paradigm for the Music Industry

By John Kusak

If you're like me your financial budget doesn't allow you to fulfill your musical cravings. Suffering from the ailment "SOME" (Same Old Music Everyday) for quite a while, I began to search for a cure. A wise man suggested I tune into "World Café" on 91.9WFPK. This acted like a shot of morphine – it killed the pain, but it didn't cure the malady and the pain came back when the "World Café" played songs that failed to appeal to me.

Commercials filled the radio waves of the other predictable boring stations.  "SOME" was starting to progress, spreading like cancer. I was running out of time. A friend then mentioned I take a dose of Napster. All I needed was a computer with Internet access. Shawn Fanning, a 19 year-old college kid, created a computer program and called it Napster after a nickname he received from his friends for having "nappy hair." The program allows users to download music for free. I logged on and I was cured.

Napster (www.napster.com) is an on-line music community, where members exchange songs by sharing music files. The user can download and save songs on their hard drive then play them later when they're not logged on. Napster's software is free and can be downloaded in a matter of minutes. Once downloaded, the user indexes MP3 music files on the hard drive and makes them available to other members when they are connected to the Internet.

MP3 files are a compression format used to convert music on CDs into computer files. Once logged on to the server, a simple title or artist search will provide access to hundreds of thousands of songs in its database. You can choose your songs and build your own music library. Download can be slow, ranging from 5 minutes to an hour for a song, but more than one song can be downloaded at a time.

Digital recordings, unreleased songs and live performances are just some of the perks that lure music lovers to Napster. The response has been overwhelming, so much so that 198 colleges have banned Napster and other MP3 transfer programs because students are jamming phone lines and keeping computers on all night long to download songs.

Napster also has produced a heated debate concerning copyright laws and the protection of intellectual property. The revolutionary characteristic that has outraged the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and most artists is that Napster is totally free. No need to spend $15 at Ear-X-Tacy for one CD, just log on and download. Recording companies and artists fear that they will inevitably lose money, as consumers turn on their computers instead of flocking to record stores.

Recording musicians earn the majority of their income from CD sales. Only those who can sell out big venues consistently make a substantial profit from touring. Most musicians tour to promote their CDs, hoping to inspire the audience to venture to a local music store. As a result of its popularity, Napster might benefit the artist by promoting and advertising the on Internet, but it's hard to tell if the publicity that artists get on Napster will have a direct relation to CD sales.

The music industry and the RIAA have recognized the possible damaging effects of MP3 servers. RIAA has filed a suit that alleges that Napster is responsible for providing a haven for music piracy. They are also suing Napster for "contributing to copyright infringement."

There are restrictions of what can be transferred via the Internet: copyrighted material requires the permission of the owner to download. In this regard, the Internet does not differ from other published mediums, such as newspapers, magazines and literary journals.
While it is illegal to copy (download) material that is copyright registered, it is not illegal to copy CD information into an MP3 file on ones' own computer. It is illegal to share them over the Internet with other users.

Napster claims that it isn't their fault that people use its service to exchange illegal files. Napster isn't fooling anyone, however: they're "indirectly involved" in copyright infringement because they provide their users with all the faculties and means to engage in massive copyright infringement. The company argues that some of the material being transferred has the permission of its owners and, in any case, the company has other functions besides transferring files.

Will the courts rule that MP3 servers are indeed infringing on copyright laws and rule that they shut down operations or will they follow the precedent set in the 1981 Betamax case? In that case, the motion picture industry sued Sony, the makers of the first VCR, for "enabling copyright infringement." The Court decided that technology couldn't be outlawed merely because some of its uses are for unlawful purposes. If the courts rule against Napster, the problems of enforcement become apparent. It might be able to shut down Napster, but it will be impossible to close down every MP3 program. With so many users, it will be hard to monitor and regulate every MP3 file transfer. A ruling might make it illegal to host MP3 file transfers, but it won't put an end to it.

On the other hand, if the courts follow the precedent in the Betamax case, then the music industry will have to undertake a revolutionary change. If the courts rule in favor of Napster, could the RIAA find a way to immobilize transfers, such as inserting viruses into files or recording anti-transfer songs? Or would a compromise be in order? Would MP3 servers charge money for access with the profits going to the musicians?

One thing is for certain: change.  Do record companies and the musicians who record for them deserve to profit from MP3 transfers? Art, in one way or another, is a vital component of our lives. Music provides an emotional release, an intimate connection to the harmonic flow of time. It beckons the soul of the listener to seek and explore its effects. Foremost, music provides pleasure. We the consumers are receiving more than just free music. Musicians are providing a service to us. This service should be not be taken advantage of by unscrupulous consumers.

Napster is an ingenious creation that might well change how music is distributed. We will profit greatly as it provides us with music that we would not have otherwise been able to hear. However, we should be aware that we are violating the wishes of the musicians whose songs we are downloading. Some of us won't care, believing that musicians and recording companies have been extorting us for a long time, while others will just find Napster to be a way to acquire free music. Whatever the outcome of the court's decision, I hope that Napster sticks around. If they make it mandatory to charge for music on-line, it will destroy the groundbreaking concept of Fanning's creation. Nevertheless, I will have no problem paying a reasonable price for hard-to-find music when my budget allows it. Until then I remain healthy, "SOME" in a dormant stage, with ample medication for the soul.