The Big Picture

Nabbing it with Napster

If you’re under 21 and computer-savvy, you can probably skip this column and spend the time downloading a few gigabytes of your favourite music. For the rest of us, the rise of Napster, and to some extent the rise and possible fall of iCraveTV, provides some fascinating insights into the minds of the generation that grew up with the Internet.

Napster is a program, freely downloadable from, that facilitates the exchange of music in MP3 compressed format. You connect to a server and suddenly you’re swimming through an ocean of music in MP3 format. All your favourite songs, all the time, sitting on people’s hard drives all over the planet. You search for what you want, by artist, title, etc., and let the downloading begin. Other people can search for MP3 files on your hard disk when you’re connected too, but we won’t even think about the privacy and security issues right now. It helps to have a cable or DSL modem, but with enough patience even a phone line will do. MP3 quality audio sounds pretty good, at least to me. On a computer with a nice set of speakers it’s just about indistinguishable from CD quality. It certainly appeals to your typical teenager because it’s free, though certainly not legal.

sidestepping the courts

How do the people behind all this stay out of the slammer? They make use of a polite legal technicality, pointing out that in fact they don’t have any copyrighted content on their computer, they’re just connecting up “The Napster Music Community.”

And they show you, in bright red letters, the following disclaimer every time you log on:

NOTE: Napster Inc. makes no representations or warranties regarding MP3 files possessed by Napster users. Thousands of MP3 files have been authorized for distribution over the Internet by copyright owners; however, Napster users should understand that MP3 files may have been created or distributed without copyright owner authorization. Neither the MP3 file format nor the Napster software indicates whether a particular MP3 file has been authorized for copying or distribution. Copying or distributing unauthorized MP3 files may violate United States and/or foreign copyright laws. Compliance with copyright law remains your responsibility.

But the powerful Recording Industry Association of America Inc. can see right through this lawyer-crafted prose. They know what’s going on, and they realize they won’t have many dues-paying member firms left if they can’t find a way to charge you for music, no matter how you obtain it.

The RIAA has a droll little tract on its Web site urging people, especially young people, to “practice a culture of responsibility” when it comes to obtaining music. They hide behind students from three major U.S. music schools, getting them to say that they’ll be eating Kraft dinner for life if free music downloading is allowed. “While students at some schools are saying save our Napster, these students were saying save our music, save our careers,” reads the RIAA’s press release. “Students expressed concerns over entering a marketplace where music has little or no perceived value. They fear that their creativity may be stifled in a marketplace where the expectation is that music on the Internet should always be free.”

I was pretty well in agreement with them until I came upon this little gem: “Students noted that even though they use the Internet to access music online, they still need and love the retail experience. They expressed a need for the human aspect traditional retail provides and a reverence for packaging, which allows them to know what the artist was thinking when the music was created.” My reverence for standing in line to give some surly kid over 20 bucks for a piece of plastic is rather low. And it’s hard to believe the generation coming up, that doesn’t even recognize a bank unless it has an ATM attached, is going to pay for that particular experience.

day in court

Not content with just fighting a war of words with Napster, the RIAA, on behalf of 18 record companies, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco on Dec. 6, 1999. It charges Napster with “contributory and vicarious” copyright infringement.

The suit seeks damages of US$100,000 for each copyright-protected song swapped to date. Since at the present moment there are 662,077 songs on-line at Napster, that’s a chunk of change. Even allowing for some duplication there must be at least 200,000 songs out there, yielding US$20,000,000,000 in claimed damages! That could be a little hard for the Napster folks to handle, especially since they haven’t figured out a way to bring in money from downloaders. They don’t even take banner advertising. Everyone figures Napster will eventually turn on the money tap if it can figure out how to do it.

Ironically, Napster’s biggest enemy right now isn’t the RIAA, it’s the system administrators at universities, which is where most of the Napster-ites get their bandwidth. As you can imagine, moving whole albums of digitized music does tend to clog even the biggest pipes, and when Professor Jones can’t move his crystallography or space telescope data, bad things happen. Indiana University banned Napster, sparking a movement, which Napster of course encourages, called Students Against University Censorship. Canadian universities are mostly still hoping it will go away, though a few have banned the software. One common trick is to tell the software that runs academic computer labs that the Napster client isn’t on the list of licensed applications. Students, being not so dumb, have become experts at renaming it to look like Microsoft Word or Excel or whatever.

intellectual property values

The implication of all this is that the folks who will be having our jobs in the next few decades don’t really put a lot of weight on the intellectual property rights of others. They might fight to the death to keep their own code from being pirated, but “music just wants to be free.”

Long term, there may be a technical solution involving almost unbreakable identification on Internet connections, combined with a micro-cash system. Most of these kids could easily afford a few cents a track for downloaded music – they just aren’t being asked properly. Or, as some pundits have it, maybe we’ll have free recorded music forever, and the dough will be in live performances. Get ready for a $40,000 pair of tickets to a Celine Dion concert. Maybe only people like Shawn Fanning, the 19-year-old lad who created Napster, will be able to afford these tickets.

Dr. Keenan, ISP, is dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary and an adjunct professor of computer science there and at the Asian Institute of Technology.

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