EDITORIAL: Too little, too late

EDITORIAL: Too little, too late

And now for something a bit different. Let's get emotive and talk Napster, file sharing, copyright, and software licensing.

First on Napster - I don't know why I didn't join this community years ago. It takes me back to when I used to copy records to tape so I could listen to them in the car.

The only problem is that now, when I've finally discovered how good it is, reports last week suggest a US court could shut it down.

With 50 million members, Napster is a huge success by any measure, and from my experience the technology is faultless.

For anyone who still doesn't comprehend what all the fuss is about, it works like this. Users log onto, download Napster's software program and use this to find, copy and store just about any music you can think of, typically using the MP3 format.

As such, Napster acts as the middleman (that's right, a channel) to allow the transfer of these files via its server hub.

Napster's legal case proves peer-to-peer technology has come of age to the point where giant record companies seriously consider file sharing a threat to revenues. (In my opinion, talk of protecting artist royalties is just an emotional smokescreen to get record companies public support).

Technology is not the issue, they argue; Napster promotes copyright abuse.

Napster supporters, myself included, would argue that file swapping actually boosts sales because if a song gains wider exposure, bands acquire more fans who must also buy every CD.

So by now you must be wondering why this unfolding drama is of relevance to the Australian reseller channel?

Our letters page this week (page 46) carries responses to Brett Winterford's recent opinion piece arguing vendors should go easy on software piracy in small business.

The respondents, a reseller, the BSAA and Microsoft Australia's corporate attorney all disagree with Brett, as you'd expect.

Now don't get me wrong. Flagrant, large scale abuses of copyright does damage to the IT industry and denies resellers of much-needed revenue.

However, to use the Napster example, there is more to the story than just a fight over copyright abuse.

The BSAA says software piracy "costs" the channel $286 million a year. Unfortunately, they don't explain what research methodology they used to arrive at this magic figure, but I digress. What I'm more interested to know is what the overall growth of the software industry is and how has piracy actually contributed to that growth.

Anecdotal evidence suggests record companies are selling more CDs as a result of Napster users trying out new music. In the same way, there is an argument that says if you've tried a free version of software (obtained illegally, or as legal freeware) and become a fan, or it helps your business, you're likely to buy the upgrade.

Another example is the success of shareware companies such as WinZip. Shareware companies might not be producing millionaires, but the honour system proves the authors will get a nominal payment from users who liked the software. Even Linux vendors make money from users who like buying boxed versions with a users guide.

Of course, under this system, vendors and the channel would not enjoy quite the same cashflow. So there's the challenge for conventional product distribution and subsequent vendor-sponsored litigation.

All these issues are still open to public debate and possible remedies (like record companies actually accepting, building and helping the Napster community). What's your view?

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