Go with what is left

Metallica and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) do have a point. It’s hard not to see at least some intellectual property issues with the service that Napster provides. But throwing lawyers at Napster Inc. might only fatten the lawyers’ wallets without having any lasting impact.

Napster (www.napster.com), for those who have not been following the news, is a new little company that developed software to allow its users to find and retrieve music files over the Internet. Once a file has been found and retrieved, it, along with any other similar files on the user’s disk, are then made available for other Napster users to find and download.

The RIAA (www.riaa.org) and Metallica (www.metallica.com) don’t think much of this advance in user convenience. The RIAA sued Napster for “contributory and vicarious copyright infringement.” Metallica, meanwhile, sued Napster for “copyright infringement and alleged racketeering activities,” and included some universities in the suit because they had not blocked access to the Napster server.

Lawyers who are not involved in the case seem to be split on the suit’s merits. Napster is not actually storing or downloading any illegal copies of music files, but its server does list sites where presumably illegal copies can be downloaded from and provides links to those sites.

I expect Metallica and the RIAA are just wasting lawyer time, although there seems to be plenty of that around. There is something about technology that does not like to be told “no.” There are already a number of competitors for Napster, one of which has no controlling server to target or block.

Gnutella (gnutella.wego.com) has developed software that operates in a distributed way. Gnutella seems to be popular, with more than 650,000 hits since April 10. All a user needs is the IP address of someone else running Gnutella’s software, then a dynamic web of connections between users is created. There is no way for an organization to block access to this web of users because connecting to any one user gets you to the whole web.

As a writer, I fully understand the importance of intellectual property and do not minimize the impact of these new technologies on the intellectual property rights of the artists whose songs are getting ripped off. But it looks to me that it will not be possible to stop this type of distribution from happening no matter how many lawyers get thrown at the problem.

It may be a bit glib to say this, but maybe it’s time for the recording industry to aggressively explore alternate business models. For the industry to blindly continue to try to apply laws designed to protect plastic in a digital era instead of understanding that the world has changed is to shoot itself. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, when you eliminate the impossible you have to go with what is left.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@sobco.com.