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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Napster & "Free" Music

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer

Mondays federal appeal court decision against Napster has thrown the already tumultuous marriage of music and computers into even more turmoil. It is, everyone acknowledges, truly a landmark decision.

A quick review of the basics might be in order here. Ever since the invention of the music CD, it's been possible to turn music into a series of bits and bytes - computer language. Individual songs could become separate files on your computer. You could make a MP3 (computer language) copy of a record, a CD, a live performance - anything really - and save it on your own home computer.

About 18 months ago (things happen quickly in the computer world), two guys came up with a computer program they called Napster. Individual users would go to the Napster site and type in the name of a song they wanted, say "White Christmas," for example. The Napster program would search its database to see who in the world had "White Christmas" stored on their computer. It would then hook your computer up to theirs and you could download the song to your own machine. With digital music, copies sound just as good as the original, so you'd wind up with a CD quality version of the song you wanted. Free. (Napster made its money by selling advertising on its site.)

The Napster program would also look into your computer to see what songs you already had in there, and add your information to its database.

It was kind of like "sharing the music," supporters said. "I'll let you copy some of the songs I have if you'll let me copy some of the songs you have" - times a million. Trading songs for personal use. After all, Napster wasn't actually copying or transmitting the music; it was just connecting someone who wanted a song with someone who had it.

Certain rock groups and The Recording Industry Association of America claimed that this amounted to copyright infringement and piracy. It was possible (and indeed popular) to get dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of songs free from this Napster arrangement - all without paying the artists or record companies a penny. The recording industry sued Napster.

As I often do when I want to "check the pulse" of popular culture, I asked my students about this. About three-quarters of them said that they personally had gotten songs from Napster. Some had downloaded 50 or 60 songs, while others had downloaded hundreds. Two kids said they had gotten thousands.

Not a single student thought what he or she was doing was wrong. Some said that they downloaded the music only for their own listening. It wasn't like they were making any money off the downloads. THAT would be wrong, but this was only for themselves, and therefore OK.

Others said that Napster actually aided rather than hindered CD sales, because they'd use the service to get a song or two from a band they liked, and then possibly go out and buy the CD at a real store (where the record company and artists would get their cut). About 75% of my students said that they used Napster in this way, and eventually bought (legally) CD's of the songs they had downloaded.

Still others said that recording artists make enough money. Even if it WAS cheating them out of royalties, it didn't amount to much, and the greedy rock stars certainly wouldn't miss it.

One kid in a local band said that his group had recorded a song in a friend's garage and then put it on Napster. It was now available for literally anyone in the world to download. He pointed out that lots of beginning bands get their material and name out in the public through Napster. For him, Napster was free publicity and distribution. Once his band made it big, they'd actually charge for CD's.

On Monday, the court's decision came down, and the court sided with the record companies and artists, ruling that Napster "by its conduct knowingly encourages and assists the infringement of copyrights." It said that kids who made their music available for others to download were violating the record companies' distribution rights, and those who downloaded the stuff violated reproduction rights.

Oddly enough, Napster fans had seen the end coming. The day before the decision was announced, millions of them logged on to download songs on what they figured was Napster's last day. Almost 10,000 users were logging on to each of Napster's 100 servers on Sunday in what many called a "downloading frenzy."

It's now illegal for Napster to encourage or help folks to get music free from the Internet. What many experts think will happen is that Napster will strike a deal with the big record companies, paying them millions of dollars for the right to distribute their copyrighted property over the Internet. Of course, if that happens, Napster will no longer be free, and will have to start charging its users money.

Monday wasn't the day the music died, but it may have been the day the free music died.

Yes, I know. Music is property. It is bought and sold, rented out to commercials and sold from racks in department stores. It is the work-product of artists, and they deserve to make money from their profession. Sadly, I suppose the court ruled correctly.

There is no such thing as a free lunch.