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AT LARGE: Caught napping

AT LARGE: Caught napping

I have a confession to make. I'm not entirely impressed with Napster. I realise this will cost me a few geek points, but I feel the need to be honest. Actually, geek points are kind of passe‚ as well, so I probably lose a few just by mentioning them. If it will regain me any cred, I have used Linux, but I don't anymore. I think that gets me about up-to-date.

Napster, however, is the current cause celebre of the "information wants to be free" crowd - the cyber-hippies who think the Web was built for them to have e-mail. As a former cyber-hippy (who became jaded and cynical when I discovered 1-Click), I have a great deal of sympathy for their cause. But Napster is, I believe, not worth fighting for.

The idea is simple and utopian: users create their own MP3 files (or source them from elsewhere), then allow Napster to search their hard drives and maintain an index of the MP3s they have. When other users want to find a particular song or artist, they search Napster's indices and Napster puts the two music lovers in touch with each other. The technology to do this is, of course, mind-bogglingly complex.

Napster argues that this does not count as copyright violation because of a clause in the US copyright law that says it's OK to share copyrighted material with friends (only in more legal-sounding words). Napster is, by this argument, not a file-sharing system, but a friend-making system. All join hands and say "awww".

The record companies argue that Napster is damaging their business, and point to a decline in the sales of CD singles last year as rock-solid proof. I'm more inclined to attribute this to a dearth of singles released last year that were worth buying, but then I'm a bit of a fuddy-duddy that way.

Anyway, Napster has offered to go into the mind-bogglingly complex software that it already has, and add extra lines of mind-splatteringly complex code that will stop users from sharing material that is copyrighted. No technology writer that I've encountered appears to have the faintest clue as to how this will be achieved. I have to admit I'm a bit hazy myself (knock off a couple more geek points).

The problem is a lack of understanding of what Napster actually does. The initial ruling in the current suit against Napster ordered the service to remove any links to copyrighted songs from its Web site. There are no links to songs on Napster's Web site, copyrighted or not, and there never have been. How could it possibly comply?

Napster's response has been twofold: to try and block access to copyrighted material in its indices, and to try and forge commercial alliances with the record companies. The first of these is as quixotic an endeavour as I have ever heard of, and the programmers charged with the task must know it. No matter how clever they are, the cyber-hippies who want Napster to remain free and uncensored are equal to the task of undoing them.

The second endeavour, the forging of alliances, must be worrying to the cyber-hippies. In order to survive, Napster wants to become a subscription-based service in which a portion of subscriber funds is allotted to the record companies. It makes sense and will probably form the basis of the future model of music distribution. But it pulls Napster away from the cyber-hippies once and for all.

As I've said, I'm not overly impressed with Napster. I've never actually managed to find a complete song on any user's hard drive - just excerpts. And generally, they're so badly "ripped" into MP3 format that I'm no less inclined to go grab the CD anyway. A subscription-based service, where I pay money and therefore expect quality, would be welcome. Meanwhile, for the "information wants to be free" people, there are numerous Napster-like services popping up all over the place, generally with enough nous to be based outside the US and its courts' jurisdiction.

All up, I just don't think it's worth chaining yourself to a bulldozer to try and save Napster. Let it go.

One final anecdote: one of the reports I read about the Napster case included a paragraph about how "for the purposes of this story . . . this reporter was able to download copyrighted songs by Metallica and Dr Dre . . . the songs were immediately deleted afterwards". I had to laugh. It was like someone on 60 Minutes describing how they'd staged an undercover sting to buy drugs or guns or something. And I'll bet that reporter, having filed the story, promptly returned home and watched her tape of last night's Buffy.

Matthew JC. Powell has many tapes of Buffy, so there. Ridicule him on mjcpowell@ozemail.com.au


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