Much Ado About Napster

Wall and Main have been abuzz over U.S. District Judge Patel’s ruling
against music file swapping software firm Napster. By the looks of it, Her Honor
has hammered the nail in the coffin for the poster child of peer-to-peer
technology. But so what? I was a strong proponent that Napster was already
washed up when it started aligning itself with record industry execs,
because quite frankly, there’s not much middle ground here.


Web enthusiasts adore Napster because it’s free and easy to use. Fire it
up, and compile a music collection that rivals any radio station. The tiny
freeware also represents a thumbing of the nose at the recording industry
establishment. But with any hot trend on the Internet, there’s bound to be
me-too competitors lickety-split.


Gnutella,
affectionately named after that to-die-for German chocolate spread, Freenet,
Scour
Exchange
– there are plenty of flavors to choose from. They all do
pretty much the same thing with varying degrees of success. More than a
dozen copycats are jockeying for attention from Gen-Xers and music buffs,
but we’re creatures of habit. And like rats on a dry poop deck, we won’t
jump ship until the water line meets our eyeballs.


Now that the clock is ticking on Napster’s rickety future, download addicts
are finally heading elsewhere for a fix. Gnutella seems an obvious choice,
with no central servers to run afoul of the long arm of the law, and it’s
gaining popularity by the day. The only problem is, for fans of Napster,
there’s bound to be a hockey stick learning curve to use the program.


Since the program is the ugly stepchild of 21-year-old Justin Frankel’s
Nullsoft, bought by America Online for $100 million
last year, the software comes with no instruction on how to use it. It’s
not very user friendly, and Gnutella’s not nearly as reliable or efficient
as its more famous rival. But it too is free, and once users familiarize
themselves with how it works, Gnutella will be one of many peer-to-peer
players that pick up right where Napster left off.


Faced with an apparent David and Goliath court brouhaha, David (no
relation) Boies took software giant Microsoft
out behind the woodshed as lead counsel to the government’s antitrust case.
Now representing Napster, Boies is one-for-two. Judge Marilyn Patel called
Napster a monster and shot down every defense argument brought before her.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) cheered the ensuing
injunction, but all of this back-and-forth has done only one thing –
showered file swapping technology with an incalculable amount of free
publicity.


To simplify the argument, there are two factors involved in making file
swapping a ubiquitous pastime for online aficionados. Think of it as the
chicken and the egg. You need a bevy of users who have hundreds of
thousands of files to swap. And you need a piece of software to facilitate
the activity. Not too long ago, both seemed insurmountable.


Sure, people have been exchanging MP3s for years, but not without a
substantial barrier to entry. Very few people had gigabyte hard drives
stuffed with free music files. Now, that’s all changed. There are entire
libraries housed on peoples’ PCs all over the world simply because of the
publicity Metallica and Dr. Dre brought to the issue of copyright
infringement.


Following Napster’s lead, file sharing programs crawled out of the
woodwork. After Napster flames out, plenty of newcomers will rush to take
its place. It’s not a question of the chicken or the egg anymore. No matter
who’s to blame – Napster, music enthusiasts, RIAA, or Metallica – the
genie’s outo

f the bottle, and its more viral than the Bubonic plague.


Nothing you or I say matters anymore. It is what it is, for better or
worse. With that said, industries from music to movies need to step back
and reevaluate their business models. If they don’t change with technology
and the times, they’ll likely suffer a similar fate that’s befallen the
very file sharing poster child they sought to snuff out.


Any questions or comments, love letters or hate mail? As always, feel
free to forward them to [email protected].


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