CeePrompt! Computer Connection

Originally published Monday, February 19,2001

Making room for Napster 

February 12, 2001 is being hailed by many in the media as "the day the music died" but I've yet to see an outpouring of grief among ardent Napsterites. Most users of this music file-sharing program were disappointed, but hardly devastated. Students I spoke with at UOP said they would be inconvenienced if Napster shut down but were confident they could get their MP3 music files elsewhere on the Internet. Many speculated that sharing programs similar to Napster would spring up in offshore locations, beyond the reach of U.S. laws.

I mention college students in particular, because this demographic group was singled out in the original district court ruling. The Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's finding that "Napster use harms the market for plaintiff's copyrighted musical compositions and sound recordings by reducing CD sales among college students".

Purportedly, CD sales have actually increased since the inception of Napster so it's difficult to gauge the exact effect Napster has had on marketplace. The fact that over 40% of colleges have blocked students from using academic networks to download files via Napster, however, clearly shows that students are overwhelming school networks with their thirst for the free music files. Each music file downloaded using Napster software averages about 4MB in size. Thousands of such files downloaded via an average wide area network can grind a business network to a virtual halt.

Copyright laws allow the copying of music for personal use. Undoubtedly, this concept of "fair use" kept the average Joe in compliance with the law when taping favorite songs for listening enjoyment in the car or perhaps over headphones during exercise. Like many of our laws, however, the founding fathers of copyright law could not possibly have foreseen that high speed Internet access, CD burners and young genius software inventors would put this "fair use" doctrine to the acid test.

Realize that Napster is merely a conduit on the Internet that allows individual users to share music files from their own personal libraries on a peer-to-peer basis, presumably for personal use. But to the extent that Napster maintains a search directory of member files and facilitates the downloading, it was deemed guilty of vicarious copyright infringement. Additionally the courts found that commercial use was demonstrated "by a showing that repeated and exploitative unauthorized copies of copyrighted works were made to save the expense of purchasing authorized copies." In a nutshell, it's not a fair use of the copyrighted music and it's profit oriented, since users profited by not paying for the music files.

50 million Napster members aren't going just lick their wounds and retreat in defeat, however. This is a formidable group of music aficionados that the recording industry must reckon and work with to find a middle ground. The Internet is one gigantic file sharing medium and Napster just scratches the surface of what the future holds.

Napster founder Shawn Fanning was just 18 years old when he wrote the source code for the now famous music file-sharing program. As an aside, he wrote the program in just three months. Now at the ripe old age of 19-years, Fanning hopes to improve on the Napster service in such a way that benefits both artists and users. A nominal membership fee charged monthly to each of the 50 million users would go a long way towards compensating artists for their copyrighted works, in my opinion.

For the time being, the music still flows throughout the Internet using the Napster software conduit. Appeals are pending and the lower court ruling must be rewritten and clarified. Hopefully somewhere in the process, the old music establishment will reconcile with the brave new Internet world, because it's not going away.

Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company, Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.

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