Coop's Corner: Napster deserves a break

The time has come to start thinking creatively about how to coexist in this digitized new world.

The participants in the Napster debate raise interesting and lively questions about the future of music on the Internet. They unfortunately refuse to think through their analyses to a real conclusion.

Nobody here is suggesting that modern industrial structures should be trashed in favor of unfettered anarchism. To be sure, artists should be fairly compensated for their work. That's why the advent of new and interesting technologies is forcing the music industry to think creatively -- hey, what a concept! -- about how to flourish in this challenging world of the future.

But with all due respect to Judge Patel and the folks applauding her decision to issue a preliminary injunction blocking Napster from allowing the unfettered exchange of copyrighted music -- I would borrow the punch line from a famed Saturday Night Live sketch: The question is moot.

Even opponents of Napster understand that the industry must embrace the new technology or wind up getting bypassed by history. Indeed, even Napster critics acknowledge the music industry must reinvent itself because the old structure is teetering.

It's useful to draw a distinction between Napster the technology and Napster the Web site. Leaving alone for the moment the wisdom of the judge's ruling, Napster represents a technology approach that can not be shut down. Napster may be vulnerable to judicial restraint because it uses a centralized directory -- not so Gnutella and Freenet.

The self-serving declarations of victory by the recording industry in the aftermath of Judge Patel's ruling might make for a good headline or two. But they purposely ignored these larger technology challenges that loom on the horizon. The music industry may prefer to shut its eyes to these transforming events, but the fact is that its world changed the day digitized music hit the Internet.

Napster bashers maintain that consumers are gleefully stealing from record companies they consider to be greedy, immoral and even criminal.

And this we know how? There are some 20 million registered Napster users, and it's awfully difficult for me to believe that the vast majority is comprised of gleeful cyber-shoplifters.

If anecdotal evidence of this great Napster conspiracy were presented in a court of law, the opposing lawyer would easily get it tossed out as hearsay. To be sure, there are doubtless folks out there in the great cyber frontier who believe that copyright is a quaint notion that should not apply to the modern era. Yet as the evidence dribbles in, lo and behold but the facts suggest that music sales are on the upswing. Might this bogey be rooted more in the imagination of the music industry than in fact?

You bet it is.

Let's focus on the larger issue: Can all participants in this debate get what they want? Some people have suggested encryption as a possible solution. I don't think that's the end-all and be-all, but at least that's a more promising point of departure for debate than issuing a flat 'nyet' and a lawsuit.

The musicians, the ones who are actually creating the "content," have a vested interest in establishing one-to-one connections with their fans on the Internet. Might there not be some sort of way these music transmitting technologies could allow them to more effectively communicate -- and yes, sell stuff -- to their listeners?

The time has come to start thinking creatively about how to coexist in this digitized new world. Consumers want the convenience of listening to music on the Internet. If they can't get it from Napster, they'll go somewhere else.


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