Nov 17, 2000

As many of you know, the firestorm between Napster and The RIAA has been going on for some time. Napster, the brainchild of college dropout Shawn Fanning, is a completely free file sharing utility designed to allow users to freely swap mp3 files online. The RIAA , or Record Industry Association of America, is one of the entites trying to make sure Napster is destroyed. There are actually two debates going on here. One debate is the obvious struggle over the future of Napster. The second, less obvious, and a lot more dangerous debate is over the future of Peer to Peer file sharing communities.

-- Cartoon version of James Hetfield on

The main beef that the RIAA and other recording industries have with Napster is the fact that Napster allows totally free file sharing. This means that nobody gives anybody else any money when the file is swapped. This means that obviously , the artists are not getting paid for their work. The RIAA has basically said that Napster exists for the sole purposes of helping people pirate copyrighted material. The Napster camp has responded to the allegation of helping to commit copyright fraud by saying that Napster is only a listing service. (This is true, as Napster servers only contain names and locations of files, not the actual files, and at no time does the actual file pass through a Napster server, this is the essence of Peer to Peer file sharing.) As to the allegation that artists are not getting paid, that is true. No recording artist has made money off of Napster, at least directly. The problem that I see is that artists are not really losing much. The artist actually gets a very small percentage of each CD sold. Now , kiddies, where do you think all that money goes? After initial costs, a large production run of CDs can cost pennies for each disc to produce. Hmmmm a few cents for the artist, and a few more for the actual production costs.... can you say 'Big Fat Profit Margin' ? And remember when the CD format first came out ? The record labels all said ' Wait a little while for the format to get established, and then prices will go down', well it's been several years, and we're still paying basically the same prices. The recording industry will fight hard to ensure that the rights of their bottom line...., er, artists, are preserved!

Napster is a true piece of software genius. The Napster model is a very elegant solution for the problem of distribution of files. IF the record compainies are smart, they will cut a deal with Napster. The trend has already begun, with Bertlemenn, the company behind BMG music club, merging with Napster. Bertlemenn is the most far sighted of the recording companies. Why do you ask? Quite simple, no matter how hard they try, the RIAA will never be able to stamp out Napster type services. For every file sharing community that gets shut down, another and another will spring up.

Also, the Napster model is no longer the biggest threat to recording labels. The open source community has come up with a service called 'Gnutella' which they tout as being proof against both 'the atomic bomb and hungry lawyers'. Their claims are also right on the money. Gnutella, and it's clones are truly decentralized file sharing communities. There are no corporate offices or central servers like Napster. Each computer within the community passes information along to a specific number of computers in the network. (Imagine an electronic 'chain letter' where a query gets sent to your computer looking for a file. If your computer has the file on it, it sends a reply back to the origionator of the request. Else, it forwards the request to a fixed number (usually 5 to 10) other computers within the network, until the lifespan of the request is met, or the desired file is found) Whereas services like Napster and Scour Exchange route requests through (a) centralized server or servers. Inasmuch as a system like Gnutella is difficult to spot while in use (Computers on the 'net are constantly throwing and recieveing queries and data packets) , it is impossible to shut down, unless the government is willing to raid the homes of every computer owning person in America.

Bertlemenn has seen the light at the end of the tunnel, and has decided that if they can't beat 'em, join em. If they slightly modify the Napster service, they can reap a large sum of money. Though it will be nothing compared to the previous (and very bloated I might add) revenue stream in the previous 'Salad Days' of CD sales, the revenue will be there for those smart enough to reap it.

Now the really dangerous second debate I alluded to in the beginning. MP3 files are just the first things to be readily shared on the internet. Mostly, this is due to the small size of the files. Since there is still a large number of people using dial-up connections, the internet is still not an incredibly fast way to get files. However, the day of the Dialup is soon to be ended. In the near future, everybody will be connected to the internet with some type of broadband connection (cable modem, DSL, Satellite, you name it...) Once everyone has the bandwidth to handle large files, whats to keep other forms of intellectual property from being pirated? Imagine a 'Softster' file sharing community where one can get pirated copies of copyrighted software? Well, actually , that's already happening. Not just with file sharing communites, but just out on the web. Don't believe me? Just go to your favorite search engine and try the keywords 'Crack' or 'cracked'. Your search engine will spit out several sites containing cracked versions of software free for download.
The real question is how do we protect ALL intellectual property as a whole, not who is right or wrong in the Napster v. RIAA?

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