Napster: Dead kitty, but the copyright cartels may yet rue the day

Jose G. Perez jgperez at netzero.net
Wed Sep 11 10:52:31 MDT 2002


It was a primitive child's drawing, yet somehow quite moving.

In a green grass field, a single freshly dug grave, with a tombstone and a
crude rendering of the famous cat-face-with-headphones logo as the
inscription.

On the blue sky above, in a child's block letter scrawl, the words "DED
KITTY."

Tuesday a week ago brought the news that a Delaware bankruptcy judge had, in
effect, ordered the liquidation of Napster. By that evening, everyone had
been let go, including THE Napster himself, Shawn Fanning.

As an 18-year-old first-term college student, Fanning had the idea of
using the Internet to facilitate what had been going on in college dorms
since forever, sharing music.

He hacked together a first, proof-of-concept program to do it, and gave the
application the name his high school buddies had given HIM, Napster (because
he had nappy hair). It spread like wildfire, and the Napster never had a
chance to look for another name for his program. Now the name, along with
any other assets, will go to the highest bidder..

At Napster's home page, what you would have seen at first after the ruling
was a black page with the cat-with-headphones logo and the words "Napster
was here."

If you visited it early, mid-day Wednesday,  by clicking on the logo you
would have been taken to the dead kitty drawing. By 4:00 in the afternoon,
though, the link, too, was dead, although the jpeg file was still on the
server and you could get to it if you gave your browser the exact address.
By the close of business the next day, the previous "work in progress" home
page had been restored, but with only one link, merchandise. All the other
links are dead, no other pages accessible. All that is left of Napster now
are the T-shirts.

The victory of the copyright cartel over Napster is thus complete. Not even
the dignity of a grave has been left to the dead kitty.

But as the champagne corks pop at the headquarters of the Recording Industry
Association of America, they may want to perhaps reflect on this. By the
time they got a judge to cripple it a year and a half ago, Napster was
averaging more than a million simultaneous users. Tuesday night, when I got
home from work, the Kazaa lite program, which accesses the most popular of
the dozen or more post-Napster file trading networks, reported 2,807,212
users online.

And, again, KaZaA is just one of several new Napsters.

On the old Napster you had to log on through a central server, and then a
bank of Napster computers played traffic cop, centralizing the information
about the shared files, organizing and regulating the file trading activity.

The new Napsters have no central servers that can be filtered or shut down,
they are self-organizing networks of end-user computers. They are more
flexible in their searches, more efficient in their downloads, and allow the
sharing of *any* kind of file, not just MP3 music files. And whereas perhaps
a few tens of millions of people downloaded the old Napster program, the new
Napsters have been downloaded hundreds of millions of times in 18 months.

Yes, there are issues about spyware/adware in this new generation of p2p
apps, threats of reprisals by the copyright cartels, and all sorts of other
problems.

Their tremendous success shows, however, is that what Napster ushered in was
a new way of producing and distributing recorded music -- and by
implication, eventually many other cultural products.

It represents the de-commoditization of music when in the form of digital
files, a leap into the future of humanity, and that in an industry that
often seems stuck in its semifuedal past, where artists become indentured
servants and are lucky to get from the record barons a tithe of what their
records bring in.

On Napster, music was free, not because it was "stolen," but for sound
economic reasons. The amount of socially necessary human labor time
required, on average, to make one more copy of a song that already is on a
file trading network is vanishingly small, and what time was required was
put up by the acquiring user, not some capitalist who had bought labor time.

The implications of this are much broader than they appear.

One result is the humbling of the media moguls of the late 90s.

"Content is king," they crowed, as they cobbled together ever-larger
copyright hoards and dreamed of "digital convergence" universeses of 500
cable channels, every single one premium or pay-per-view.

Today Jerry Levin who put together AOL Time Warner is gone, given the boot
by the board at the behest of a vengeful Ted Turner after Levin stripped
Turner of the control of the  cable TV empire Turner had built. Levin
earlier had kicked Turner upstairs to vice-chairman of the board, which is
like being Prince of Wales -- without being in line to succeed to the
throne. Also gone is Bob "mad dog" Pittman, who did not miss a beat in going
from being AOL founder Steve Case's hatchet to playing the same role for
Levin in the larger company, as are many others of the former AOL and TW
stars. I can't think of a single major division that today is being run by
the same executive who was at the helm two years ago.

But what is true of AOL TW is true of the rest. The same thing is happening
at Vivendi Universal, at Bertelsmann, and Eisner is hanging on by a thread
at Disney.

At bottom, what is behind this upheaval is what Napster represented. The
hackers had it right all along. Information --"content"-- doesn't want
to be King, it wants to be free. And not mainly or mostly "free of charge,"
but free as in freedom. Free for you to do with as you please. Free to play
when you want and how you want. Free to rip and scratch and combine and
deconstruct and re-edit.

The Emperors of Entertainment from the dawn of the new millenium have been
given the boot, not because their hype about a "digital convergence" of
media did not come true, but because it IS coming true, with a vengeance,
and their pitiful narrow visions of nickel-and-diming consumers to death
was swept away by this tide.

This is also what caused the collapse of the dot-com bubble. All the things
they said about what you'd be able to do with the Internet were TRUE. What
was FALSE is that you could somehow magically make a ton of money from it.

Napster and everything it symbolizes and is connected to in real life, the
programs that show you music and video, that allow you to rip, edit and
burn, IS the digital convergence. And it turns out we're not heading toward
a 500-channel universe, but a 500-million-channel universe. What Napster
represented in music is essentially a radio station you program yourself.
Relatively easy to use, flexible, infinitely modifiable and adaptable. And
what was true of music as soon as Napster made its appearance is now
beginning to become true of television.

The music mafias and copyright cartels are still in denial, and they have
finally come up with an answer to the Napsterization of everything: outlaw
the digital revolution. The heart of this plan is to outlaw home computers
as we know them and require that any such devices instead be closed "Black
Boxes" that will refuse to copy or play any content unless specifically
authorized.

In addition, a similar copyright cop would become part of every internet
router and server. This is what is known as "Digital Rights Management," and
what it does is manage your rights in the digital domain to oblivion.

Obviously, such an architecture would be ideal, not only for charging you
for music by the note, but also for keeping track and controlling anything
and everything posted to or transmitted via the Internet. It would be the
techonology that could turn the totalitarian nightmare embodied in the
patriot act into an everyday reality.

I will not address here whether such a thing is possible, either politically
or technically, other than to say it is a VERY tall order.

The irony in all this is that Napster presented the music industry, and by
extension the rest of the entertainment industries, with an opportunity to
establish a modus vivendi with the new distribution possibilities opened up
by technology. I believe it would have been viable for years, and possibly
many years, alloiwng them to continue operating at a profit.

And that would have been, simply to legalize p2p file trading via Napster,
but charge a small subscription fee. Because Napster employed central
servers to share lists of files, this would have allowed things like
preventing the trading of top-quality rips of music, capping the quality at
what is common on file-trading networks today, comparable to, say FM radio,
okay for casual listening, but still preserving a higher-quality level for
actual CD's and pay-per-track downloads.

The service could have been expanded to also include trading of video files,
and, again, with resolution capped at roughly VHS quality, reserving the
higher resolutions for DVD.

 The subscription fees plus revenues from advertising and commissions on
CD's and DVD's sold through the service would have been used to "compensate
the rights holders," i.e., buy off the music and movie mafias, with, perhaps
a little going to artists and composers (but I doubt it, since the mafias
make sure damn little goes to them now).

The running costs of providing the service, i.e., operating the central
server "traffic cop" computers is minimal; all of the costs involved in
creating the computer files, storing them and copying them are borne by end
users directly.

The copyright cartels haven't gone for something like this because, simply,
they are still in denial about their cherished vision of a pay-per-play
digital convergence universe having been a pipe dream, and specifically in
the case of the record labels because it would undermine their almost feudal
control of the industry.

And thus they have now destroyed what might well eventually turn out to have
been their last, best hope for survival.

José




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