20 September 2005

Look Back in Curiosity: After Napster

I was pleased to find a report at the Free Expression Policy Project on the history of audio file sharing in general and Napster in particular.
Since the late 1990s, “peer-to-peer” sharing of popular music has been the copyright industry’s most visible concern, and the Napster case was its first big attempt to stop it. As with DeCSS, the industry decided, at least initially, to go after the technology that enables filesharing rather than users of the technology who actually engage in copyright infringement.
This technology was Napster, a program-cum-service conceived by Shawn Fanning, whose idea was to allow owners of recorded music to share songs online. I happen to be the sort of obnoxious bore who loves to inflict his musical tastes on guests ("Here, check this out...this is Pharoah Sanders with Trilock Gurtu"), and this allows one to meet up with people who share my freakish tastes and passions.

Napster was promptly sued by a most perverse manifestation of "the suits," namely, the nihilist musical group "Metallica." Metallica's lawyers convinced the court that Napster was wholly responsible for any illegal copyright infringement that might have been perpetrated by Napster users, although courts had long ago ruled that VCR usage was legitimate. Even upon appeal, the court issued an injunction requiring Napster to guarantee that there was not a single piece of copyrighted material on its website.

However, the legal volley on Napster backfired. On the one hand, Napster's centralized system of storing files for exchange was easy to "take out" through legal action; but networks like Grokster, Morpheus, and KaZaA, which linked persons wishing to share files, did as well. On the other, in April 2003 the federal courts ruled with MusicCity (the developer of Morpheus) that holding the file sharing software liable for copyright infringement was illogical. In response to the lawsuit brought by 28vultures media companies, the federal court ruled that file sharing software is indeed analogous to VCRs and photocopy machines.

At the risk of being obvious, another obstacle to the media companies was the fact that the internet is universal, not merely American; file servers for KaZaA, for example, are believed to be located in Denmark and are less than essential for file sharing. Moreover, hardware options for file sharing are also proliferating; the most serious challenge is, of course, the advent of widespread 3G telephony. So as a crowning irony, even if Morpheus, et al., were banned by the courts, softwares like these are already obsolete.

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