What to do about the Napster problem?

Coop's Corner: Napster goes to Congress

After watching the Napster debate get played out on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, I came away convinced of two things: My own U.S. Senator, Dianne Feinstein of California, remains as clueless as they come -- little surprise there -- and Metallica drummer, Lars Ulrich, runs a close second.

A couple of weeks before the opposing sides were due to start slugging it out in a San Francisco courtroom, the public had a sneek peek at coming attractions as the sundry personages in this cyber-snit made their best pitches to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

It wasn't particularly scintillating stuff, that is, not if you were hoping to gain a clear idea about how the Napster problem should get fairly resolved. (Hey, we're talking about Congress, after all -- though to my great delight Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy indicated he was a closet "Dead Head.")

The C-SPAN cameras taped the invariably predictable grandstanding by politicians looking for free advertising in front for the cameras -- Feinstein's ditzy questioning of Napster CEO Hank Barry being the low point of the session.

I shouldn't be overly harsh. When it comes to the politics of technology, Leahy and Utah's Orin Hatch rate among the more informed members of the upper chamber and their questioning was thoughtful.

In comparison, Ulrich came off as a self-absorbed twit. Clinging to a stale and false contention that Napster use was equivalent to theft, the Metallica band member wants Congress to pass regulation to stamp out the Napster phenomenon now. (That proposal won't fly; both Leahy and Hatch expressed their reluctance to enact hasty laws to impose a solution.)

But Ulrich wasn't done. Every time somebody downloads a song from the Internet using Napster, he told the panel, that person is essentially stealing money from the pockets of everybody from the "creative community."

That is certainly a creative statement. Creative, but wrong on the facts and doubly wrong on the prescription.

The truth is that Napster users are buying CDs as a result of their sampling music over the Internet -- a trend that should presumably benefit the likes of Metallica. More importantly, it will be a boon to less well-known bands that might otherwise have never come to the public's attention.

The powers-that-be running the recording industry are asking the rest of us to believe the preposterous assertion that all 20 million Napster users are engaged in copyright theft and not just sampling. The fact -- testified to at the same session by Roger McGuinn, is that the system is rigged to give the artists the short end of the stick. Amazingly, McGuinn said he had not seen royalties for most of his 1960s hits with the Byrds until the advent of MP3 brought his work to the attention of a new generation of fans.

Other musicians such as Courtney Love and Chuck D who have weighed into the debate on the side of Napster realize the incredibly liberating potential offered by peer-to-peer Internet technologies.

Not only will they be able to attract an infinitely wider audience than they might have prior to the Internet age, but this new tool will help them level the playing field with the music studios. It's not a prospect the recording industry understandably welcomes with any relish.

Money can and will still be made. But the industry's hired guns are trying their best to turn the fair use doctrine on its head. They are simply afraid of losing control.

I think it's too tough a sell. Besides, you can only buy so many politicians in any single generation.


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