In the popular 1970s television show "Happy Days," Henry Winkler played the uber-cool, leather-clad Fonz.
His trademark trick involved hitting a jukebox in just the right spot to release free music, to the awe of onlookers. To the appreciation of fans. And to the envy of detractors.
Now Napster has emerged as the Fonz of the software era. It hits the Internet in just the right spot to release free (if illegal) tunes, much to the delight of Net users. To the chagrin of the music industry. And to the alarm of anyone who would charge for music and other entertainment content on the Web.
Napster's software allows music listeners to expose parts of their personal computers to anyone else using Napster in order to share MP3 tunes they have stored.
At any given time, thousands of people are online, sharing hundreds of thousands of songs, many of which are technically illegal to download without the permission of the copyright holders.
The Recording Industry Association of America has already sued Napster, charging that the firm permits massive copyright violations by facilitating the easy exchange of music. The dispute has also drawn the likes of Metallica, Dr. Dre and Ice-T into the fray. Click for more.
The widespread popularity of music file sharing signals uphill battles ahead for entertainment companies that would charge for content on the Net.
Web users already have proven unwilling to pay for most information on the Web. Consider the fate of Webzines such as Microsoft's highbrow Slate, which gave up trying to charge subscription fees for its content years ago. Click for more.
Likewise, music consumers are proving reluctant to pay for that which they can get elsewhere for less, or for free.
Recent research from Greenfield Online finds more than two-thirds of online music shoppers surveyed have not paid for -- and do not expect to pay for -- digital music downloads.
This unwillingness to pay underscores issues surrounding the recording industry's recent legal battles with Napster and other online digital music distributors. Click for more.
Other research reveals that among online music consumers:
38 percent have bought music products, such as CDs that are shipped to the purchaser (source: ACNielsen);
35 percent have downloaded music (Pew Research Center);
34 percent have not paid for digital music downloads -- nor would they expect to (Greenfield Online).
What's most important to online music consumers?
According to the Greenfield study, it all comes down to cash: 80 percent of those surveyed consider price a driving force, and say if they can find the item for a lower price elsewhere -- either online or offline -- that's where the transaction will occur.
In general, they will not spend more money to get additional features, such as sharing music with friends or music portability. (However, more than a quarter say they would pay a premium for the ability to create custom mixes.)
Music is just the beginning. Already, DivX -- the Napster of movies -- is threatening to blanket the Web with illegal -- but perfect -- copies of blockbuster Hollywood films and other works of entertainment. Click for more.
The Fonz used to smack the jukebox machine and liberate its tunes. In a similar fashion, you may soon be able to "smack" the Net and get old episodes of his TV show "Happy Days."
At least until Hollywood figures out how to fix the machine.