Napster – a tiny sample of the information revolution By Terrell Ward Bynum

The previous comment posted in this series – “Will the Internet Kill the Geese that Lay Our Golden Eggs?” – [see the archives of this series] concerned the heated public controversy about Napster and similar computer programs. Such programs enable individuals to swap computerized music files and other computer files over the Internet without paying a royalty to copyright holders. This is a follow-up to my previous posting.

Much has happened during the past month. A federal judge in California (Judge Marilyn Patel) ruled that Napster must cease operations because the company facilitates piracy of intellectual property. After that ruling, a federal court of appeals stayed the order and Napster has remained in operation. In addition, hearings were held in the U.S. Congress, with lawyers for the music and film industries arguing for elimination and outlawing of companies and programs like Napster.

Defenders of Napster and similar computer programs argued that powerful music and film distributors simply want to prevent any competition in the distribution of music and films – and thereby preserve their economic dominance of the field. These critics suggested that music and film distributors should find new business models to take advantage of the new technology, rather than try to stifle competition. Musical groups who are “outsiders” – not among the few that the music industry promotes – argued that Napster and similar Internet distribution programs provide a much-needed opportunity to disseminate their works around the globe for potential fans who otherwise could not hear their music. This will lead to more diversity and greater freedom of creativity, they said.

In a recent op-ed column in the New York Times, “Facing the Music: Napster is Only the Beginning” (Sunday, July 30th, 2000), Paul Krugman noted that the Napster debate is just the beginning of the world’s struggle to reconsider the very idea of intellectual property. He pointed out that Napster is an easy legal and technical target compared to more sophisticated and more “distributed” file-swapping technology:

Napster was a soft target, a centralized operation… where the short arm of the law could reach them. Ready to take up the slack if Napster shuts down are decentralized “distributed” systems in which the music resides on [and is disseminated by] the computers of many different people.

Krugman scoffs at John Perry Barlow’s suggestion that, like the musical group The Grateful Dead, the music industry should allow fans to copy the music and make up the losses with ticket sales. To Barlow’s suggestion that the Internet should be governed by a “fluid etiquette” rather than “rigid law” – like the unwritten “Code of the West” of 19th century America – Krugman replies: “that etiquette didn’t save the buffalo – or give any consideration to the Indians.”

The Napster debate is a tiny part of a much bigger story; namely, the world’s struggle to rethink the very idea of intellectual property – and indeed to come to terms with the “information revolution” that is “morphing” into existence before our eyes. As Krugman notes:

The truth is that this story is much bigger than music, or even intellectual property. Something serious, and troubling is happening – and I haven’t heard any good ideas about what to do about it.

We get here a tiny glimpse at a fundamental question in the new and important field of “computer ethics” or “information ethics”: How can the world justly and ethically integrate the most powerful and most flexible technology ever devised – information technology – into every corner of society and of a human life??