Mr Napster goes to Washington

Napster and MP3.com executives testify before Congress over worries that digital music technology is robbing recording artists

The dispute between recording artists and digital music-swapping technology such as Napster blared into Washington Tuesday, as Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich squared off against Napster chief executive Hank Barry in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Metallica is not anti-technology... but how can we embrace a new format when somebody with a few lines of code... simply gives it away?" asked Ulrich, criticising Napster for allowing users to exchange music files without compensation for artists.

"If music is free for download, the music industry is not viable," said Ulrich.

But Barry countered that Napster's 20 million users demonstrate that consumers want a new way to share music -- and that music-sharing programs lead to more record sales, not fewer.

"More access to music leads to more sales of music," said Barry. He said that users who download 20 or more files from Napster end up deleting 90 percent of those files.

The Committee was holding a fact-finding session on the issue of digital downloading, which is currently the subject of a number of lawsuits between services such as Napster and MP3.com and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

Ulrich said the issue wasn't Napster, specifically -- "Metallica is not anti-technology," he said -- but rather that the new technology is being used to distribute music for which artists aren't getting paid.

"How does this square with the level playing field of a free market system?" he asked.

Ulrich said Napster-like technology hits particularly hard on artists not as well known as Metallica, and also the large number of workers in others parts of the music and recording businesses.

But executives from Napster and MP3.com said that new technology is the issue -- that copyright holders have always fought innovations that threatened to interrupt their fat cash flow.

MP3.com chief executive Michael Robertson said, for example, he agreed to pay "enormous amounts" to license music from major record labels weeks ago, but that those companies have yet to deliver full music catalogues to MP3's users.

"We're still not able to offer that music to consumers," said Robertson. "We're willing to pay, but that's not the issue in my opinion. The issue of barriers to competition."

MP3.com last month reached a settlement with two record labels, allowing it to include the labels' songs in its My.MP3.com service, which allows users to store music digitally and then access it via any computer.

Under the settlement, each label would receive between $15m and $25m, sources said. Additionally, MP3.com would pay an undisclosed fee each time that label's CD is registered by a user and another fee each time a user accesses one of its songs.

The hearing highlights the digital collision between users who want to be able to easily download music files and play them in a range of devices, with the need of artists to get paid for their work.

"If you write a song... you ought to be rewarded for that. At the same time let's not strangle the baby in the crib," said senator Patrick Leahy.

Committee chairman, senator Orrin Hatch, called for compromise between music artists and the music-swapping services. "Some creative cooperation might be to everyone's benefit," said Hatch.

Others testifying at the hearing included Byrds co-founder Roger McGuinn.

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