Napster Article

William Wharton williamwharton at
Wed Aug 16 22:20:31 MDT 2000


Thought folks might be interested in the following article for a socialist
student newspaper...

Napster, Private Property and the Internet "Revolution"
By William Wharton

"The sense of private property - freed of its alienation - is the
existence of essential objects for man, both as object for enjoyment and
object of activity."

Karl Marx The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts Part I Vol. 3
Each new commercial hails the "revolution" in computing, a new
"revolutionary" program or a "revolutionary" new Internet community.  The
word revolution seems to be splashed across every other page of mainstream
media.  As defined by Madison Ave., the new meaning of "revolution" lies
in the "transformation without a transformation," a new chapter in the
consumer revolution, where society can be transformed at the click of a
mouse and the insertion of a credit card.  Stripped of its real
transformative qualities, "revolution" is the shiny new package employed
to advertise the notion of progress to increasingly numb American
consumers.  However, like the genie in the bottle that wakes at the
recantation of its name, the transformative qualities of revolution - the
questioning of all existing social relations - have begun to rear their
collective heads.

Napster and Private Property
Created by a first-year computer science student at Northwestern
University, the basic ideal of the "Napster community", which is in line
with a more radical definition of the term revolution, is that if
ownership is collective there are no owners.  Members who log onto the
system do not pay a fee but agree to have their private music collections
placed into a library that is downloadable by any other member.  The
member who wishes to hear a song from your library can then access it and
transfer a copy to her/his own collection.  In this sense, there are no
financial transactions per se, just the unlimited sharing of products.

As 21 million registered users stood at their keyboards ready to download,
the Record Industry of America Association (RIAA) received a preliminary
judgement in the first of five lawsuits against for copyright
infringement.  U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel issued a preliminary
judgment, which would have effectively shut down the online music service.
Patel ruled that the RIAA had proven that "…a majority of Napster users
use the service to download and upload copyrighted music" and were
therefore guilty of copyright infringement.  In essence, music is just
another commodity subject to the rules of private property and thereby
under the control of those who have legal ownership of the copyrights - in
this case the RIAA.  Along with the Napster Company itself, the court
effectively indicted millions of people who had engaged in the "criminal"
activity of selecting, listening and sharing something they didn't own.

Thankfully, for those 21 million bandits, the court issued a stay against
Patel's injunction and Napster users continue their downloading frenzy.
Hailed as another part of the wider Internet "revolution", Napster has
proven worthy of such a radical tag.  In the authentic tradition of the
word revolution, Marx himself would have surely commented that Napster's
ideal of collective ownership has the potential to  "…[bring] disorder
into the whole of bourgeois society, [and] endangered the existence of
bourgeois property." (Communist Manifesto)  Judge Patel provided an
additional indication of the manner in which Napster has challenged
existing property and thereby social relations, "It may be what makes this
case difficult -- or nay of the cases involving new technology -- is that
it is hard sometimes to make a neat fit."  21 million Napster users have
forcefully challenged the "neat fit" of paying $17 for a Compact Disc that
costs less than $2 to produce.

This challenge to the fundamentals of profit accumulation is precisely
what has motivated the RIAA, as well as bands such as Metallica, to push
multiple lawsuits through the judicial system.  There are certainly a
large amount of profits to protect.  According to the RIAA's 1999 year-end
statistics domestic shipments of CD's alone accounted for over $12.8
billion.  The market for music as a whole has increased sharply over the
last ten years alone.  In 1990 for instance, the dollar value of shipments
amounts to $7.5 billion from 865 million units.  In 1999 that dollar value
had almost doubled to $14.5 through the shipment of 1.16 billion units.
The "threat" of Napster has provided the only serious challenge to this
juggernaut of profits.  Again Judge Patel sounded the horn of alarm when
she tried to paint Napster as a phenomenon which would do irreparable harm
to the RIAA because of its mass appeal, "…there is evidence that Napster
anticipates proudly that more than 70 million users by the end of the year
will be on Napster in some fashion or another."

The Creation of Napster and the Case for Idleness
        The very creation of Napster provides evidence that idleness may be the
condition most conducive to human creativity.  This idea is a smack in the
face to the dominant themes of American class relations such as "idle
hands are the devil's workshop", "whistle while you work"(consider which
company propagated this slogan) and "a penny saved is a penny earned."
        Technically, Napster is a progression from programs used mainly by
university students for chats and file transfers known as the Internet
Relay Chat or IRC in internet-speak. Philosophically, Napster is the child
of a creative mind left un-stimulated by classes and un-enthused by the
potential of a keg-party lifestyle.  In other words, the then 17 year-old
Shawn Fanning was faced with a whole lot of free time.

In a recent interview with the San Jose Mercury News, Fanning had this to
say about his early college experiences, "I was partying all the time.  I
was having a lot of fun.  But I wasn't really learning anything."  Thanks
to the low intellectual level of his introductory computer science classes
he was provided with the most valuable human resource - free time.
Combined with an inquisitive mind and experience on the Internet since age
13, Fanning's free time created the space for the birth of Napster.

        After a string of complaints issued by a friend over ineffective systems
for downloading music, Fanning poured himself into the task of creating a
more stable system.  Using the IRC network as a resource of collective
knowledge he linked up with two other students, Sean Parker and Jordan
Ritter, and benefited from the advice and criticism of many IRC
participants.  Together, this collegiate team created a system that has
expanded the musical horizons of at least 21 million other people.

The ability to spend time concocting this scheme outside of a regular
class or work schedule is testimony to the potential for creativity which
exists in idleness.  Philosopher Bertrand Russell delighted in the idea of
creating mass social situations such as the one which benefited Fanning,
Parker, Ritter and millions of others in his essay In Praise of Idleness.
Russell wrote that in a society where the work week was halved, "…there
will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, [and]
weariness…Since men (or women presumably) will not be tired in their spare
time, they will not only demand such amusements as are passive and vapid."
For American workers who, according to a 1997 report of the International
Labor Organization, work nearly 2,000 hours per year more than other
workers in the "industrialized world", the struggle for free time is the
struggle to be more human.   Or as Marx related, "If the labourer consumes
his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist." (Capital, Vol.
1)  In an example of the social benefits of such "robbery", Fanning's
boredom translated into social advancement.

Packaging, Marketing and Commodifying Dissent
The second, and perhaps most dangerous issue for the maintenance of social
control are the signs of autonomous structures springing forth from
information technology.  As the recent mass demonstrations in Seattle,
Washington and Philadelphia show tens of thousands of young people can be
mobilized with the click of a mouse.  The seemingly banal sound of
"You've got mail!" has been displaced by a myriad of activist network
building, instant updates and international solidarity efforts.

The creation of Napster poses a serious systematic question over the
distribution and control of a variety of cultural expressions.  Under RIAA
dominance, new musical artists are evaluated, spun and packaged based on
demographic surveys that desperately attempt to gauge the "latest
listening trends."  These measurements are of a dual nature.  The first
section of "listening trends" are rooted in a status quo which has already
been manufactured by other multinationals like McDonalds, Disney and the
Gap.  Hence, listeners should not be surprised by the endless march of
"boy bands" which are served up with all the speed, and flavor, of a Big

        The other end of the measurement by the RIAA entails locating the
"cutting edge" of alternative listeners.  This section of the industry was
built upon the early successes of the Indy bands of the 80's, such as REM,
who built large college campus based followings.  As the "cutting edge"
moved towards the "grunge scene" in the 90's the industry quickly
responded by scooping up bands such as Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Soundgarden.
A similar strategy was employed with rap and hip-hop artists as a parade
of "bitchin" and "hoein" bands stand in relation a handful of militantly
political bands such as Public Enemy, NWA and Dead Prez.

As the century drew to a close the industry was presented with a larger
challenge from bands such as Rage Against the Machine (RATM) whose music
explicitly challenged capitalism, racism and the international oppression
they breed.  After originally rejecting major record labels, RATM was
scooped up by Epic Records (owned by Sony) and given full control over
lyrical content.  In a move that seemed to be class suicide, corporate
America shipped and sold 15 million CD's with liner notes encouraging
young people to read Che Guevarra's works on guerrilla war, and lyrics
such as, "Fuck You! I won't do what you tell me…".  Perhaps capitalism was
indeed selling the rope it would hang by.

        Instantaneously RATM's militancy was transformed into the symbol of
revolution, an addition to the CD collection of every disgruntled youth
that offers an escape from the degradation of capitalist society.  While
the lyrics and ideas of RATM have the potential to act as a lever to
further revolutionary development, the function of entertainment in
capitalist society must be considered inherently "passive and vapid."  Now
youth are asked to purchase the $18 RATM CD and listen passively; to
purchase the $45 RATM concert ticket and listen passively and the $25 RATM
T-shirt with Che's face to "advertise" their dissent.  However, by
controlling the means of production, marketing and distribution, music
CEO's will insure that there is only one RATM to fit neatly into the
"niche market" of revolution which is being created by the real existing
questioning of a new generation.  RATM has been reduced, packaged and
delivered - another commodity to be lusted after as a substitute for real
human activity.  Why make a revolution, when you can buy it at the Mall?

        In this realm, the realm of selection, financing and social control,
Napster offers the possibilities of a more democratic, and thereby more
dangerous, form of musical distribution.  Since Napster destroys
ownership, anyone can upload music onto the system and distribute it to
other users.  Progressive artists such as RATM, the Smashing Pumpkins and
Limp Biscuit have already spoken in favor of the potential for complete
artistic control, which Napster offers.  Chuck D, of Public Enemy, has
been one of the most vocal proponents of Napster, "I think this is
progressive for the art because the industry and corporations have
dominated and monopolized the outlets for the art."

The very notion that ideas can be constructed and mobilized on a mass
scale outside of the purview of the multi-national corporations via
internet based technology has the potential to destabilize the entire
system of profits and social control.  The transmission of culture through
unfettered channels opens up new fronts to resist the socialization of
McDonalds, the GAP, Disney…

Fax Me Over a Car
The degree to which the potential of programs like Napster and internet
based social organizing have sent a shock through the ruling elite remains
largely hidden from the public's eye.  Every now and then a crack in the
facade appears. "People keep getting hung up on the idea that information
should be free, but I don't think the same thing applies to music,"
related Internet "strategist" Keith Vidal "It would be like me coming up
with a machine to make copies of Mr. Fanning's car and saying 'Hey all I'm
doing is making the machine.  I'm not responsible for what happens.'"
Vidal strikes at the burning question facing the Internet generation.

What if it was more efficient, more socially useful and more democratic to
organize society communally?  Can society continue to ignore this
possibility in the face of massive improvements in means of producing and
providing?  The future of millions depends on the realization that we are
standing in shoes that are too narrow to contain our human potential.  Not
only can information, music and transportation be distributed freely; the
same "revolutionary" collective attitude can be applied to the questions
of food, housing and healthcare. In

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