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[whitespace] John Flansburgh File sharing is the music industry's 'Vietnam,' says John Flansburgh.

Rip It to Shreds

Napster is dead. Long live Napster.

By Gina Arnold

THEY SAY there are only six good plots in fiction. Well, the history of Napster, the company that pioneered MP3 file sharing, was definitely one of them. In its three years on this planet, the company rose to the highest heights and fell to the lowest depths. But despite the melodrama inherent in the company's sad collapse, the impact of its product cannot be overstated.

Since it was forced by court order to cease serving the public last winter, many people probably believed that Napster was already gone. In fact, the Redwood City-based company was still in operation, its employees working feverishly to perfect software that would let copyright holders of songs get paid by the download. It was also involved in a deal whereby record label giant Bertelsmann MG would buy its assets. Bear in mind, its end came last week not because it lost its famed lawsuit against the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), but because a bankruptcy judge declared the purchase of the company by BMG invalid.

The Napster story is typical of many late '90s startup situations, wherein a bunch of tech people got together with a bunch of business people and were absolutely incapable of understanding one another. I think, also, that both sides of Napster's brain trust must have really underestimated the power of the music business. When it throws its muscle behind something, it can really smash it up. In this case, the RIAA felt that file sharing was eating into its profits, and it set out to declare it illegal. The RIAA is being careful to portray itself the winner in a philosophical battle over intellectual copyright. But the characterization is wrong, since the case was never fully tried. File sharing may be copyright infringement. On the other hand, it may be the moral equivalent of loaning your CD to a neighbor--an act that is definitely legal.

Royalties and artists' rights are an important element of the Napster story, but something else was at issue. As Brad King of Wired.com told me recently, "It's just another case of how corporations are trying to clamp down on how people are allowed to use their computers. And the sad thing is, they--corporations--now characterize the sharing of any information as 'Napsterizing' something. As if file sharing or access to information is a bad and evil thing."

King likens the kind of legislation that the RIAA is seeking to slap on file sharing to the concept of "trusted computing" which, he says, is a way for corporations to "trust" that what you're up to on your computer is in their best interest.

How do we stop sharing? Put locks on your computer. That's a scary enough thought, but as King says, it proves what was so important and interesting about Napster. For a very short period of time, people--even Metallica fans--were debating this somewhat sophisticated question about intellectual property rights.

Sadly, they all seemed to forget about it after a while, leaving the industry to have its way. What will happen now? King thinks things will tighten up, but others think the music industry has won a victory that's entirely Pyrrhic. "The MP3 controversy is the recording industry's Vietnam," says John Flansburgh, of They Might Be Giants. "The only hope for equity between musicians, songwriters, recording companies, publishers and audiences is that our legal system can miraculously find the intellectual clarity to move publishing and copyright from a fractured 1949 model directly into the present. But the generation gap on this issue is huge and the political gap between the parties involved is even bigger. You've got to wonder how many members of Congress or justices ruling on intellectual property cases even understand how to retrieve their own email, or how many formats ago they stopped buying recordings."

Flansburgh thinks that the record industry may actually end up imploding over this issue, when it becomes obsolete, but that's way in the future. Meanwhile, I talked to a Napster employee who jokingly suggested that he would take this opportunity to drive across the country, "ripping" (i.e., digitizing) the CD collections of everyone he meets. It would have been a lot cheaper and more convenient to be able to download them via the Internet but alas, Napster is dead. Long live Napster.

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From the September 19-25, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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