Digital Nation: Rethinking Copyright In The Age Of Napster

Some say music file-sharing programs herald the dawn of a new era.

Metallica drummer

Lars Ulrich looked

talk-show host

Charlie Rose in the eye.

Ulrich, who was debating rapper

color="#003163">Chuck D about

Napster on "The Charlie Rose Show," explained why

Metallica sued Napster

Inc., maker of the popular MP3-trading software of the

same name, and what might happen if Metallica didn't

put their collective foot down. He was sounding

particularly earnest.

"This is going to throw commerce and the whole

perception of all this stuff on its head completely,"

he said.

Too late.

Or so say people who've been watching the development

of Napster during the past several months.

Many say we're at the beginning of a historical shift,

one that will determine how we treat intellectual

property and copyright for decades to come.

"Copyright to a large extent will have to change,"

said Robin Gross, staff attorney for the Electronic

Frontier Foundation, an Internet civil-liberties

group.

"But in many ways, no matter how it changes, it will

be outpaced by technology. So we're better off letting

the technology work its way through society, and let

society decide what appropriate rules and what

appropriate laws to have, rather than trying to impose

the old legal system onto this new technology."

Napster alone is not at the heart of the

transformation. Napster, which is also being sued by

rapper Dr. Dre and

by the record industry's

chief trade group, is a centralized company that can

be put out of business.

But it appears that Gnutella, a similar file-sharing

program with no central hub through which information

flows, cannot. And FreeNet, a budding file-sharing

program that protects its users' anonymity, may be

more powerful still.

We're not just talking about swapping copies of, say,

Pearl Jam's "Soon

Forget." These simple programs have important

ramifications for

distributing books, articles, movies - any

content.

Traditionally, copyright has been about someone having

the right to prohibit others from making copies of a

work, in a system where making copies was difficult,

entertainment lawyer Whitney Broussard said.

So what happens when copies can easily be created and

distributed with no noticeable loss of quality?

We may end up focusing more on a "right of

remuneration," Broussard said.

"Meaning that you can't really stop someone from

making copies, but you do have the right to get paid,"

he said.

A copyright owner could get paid from, for instance,

taxes or licenses, such as the taxes already levied

against recordable CDs.

Courts are already starting to apply existing laws to

new technologies such as Napster and MP3.com's

My.MP3.com online CD-storage and playback service.

Those cases, and surely others ahead, will affect the

course that the concept of intellectual property

takes.

But some say what's at stake for creators and

consumers warrants a broader, societal debate.

"I don't think the philosophers have been sufficiently

consulted on this one," said David Weekly, a Stanford

University computer science student who has consulted

for myplay.com, Spinner.com and Time Warner on digital

issues.

"This is the issue of use ... What rights does a

creator have to determine how their work should

be used? What rights does a user have?"

Within the existing concept of copyright, trying to

thwart a program like Napster is the natural thing for

rights-holders to do.

But that's a futile approach, Metallica's critics say.

Because after Napster's gone, its users will run to

Gnutella, and if that's shut down, they'll turn to

FreeNet, and so on and so on, forever.

"Trying to stop that is not the right model,"

Broussard said. "Trying to figure out how to get paid

correctly is the right model. Then let people do

whatever the hell they want."