Fast (Not Free) Home Delivery

Pick one: Napster is the liberator of those unfairly oppressed by high CD prices. Or, Napster is the end of intellectual property and copyright.

Those appear to be the only choices if you listen to college students who poach MP3 files through school-funded T1 lines or to entertainment industry lawyers who are suing everyone in sight. But these polarized positions miss the point: Napster isn’t about economics or morality (though Napster can be, and is, used to steal music). Napster is about convenience.

Napster does one thing and does it very well: It delivers music right to the desktop, whenever a listener wants it. Just download the Napster software, check the directory for a desired song, and transfer the file.

By contrast, online music distribution schemes slowly emerging from the major labels are nowhere near as easy to use. InterTrust, one high-profile encryption provider, requires a listener first find the music, then download unlocking software and a digital wallet, then download the music, and then pay for and unlock the music file.

Sure, you only have to download and install the security software once. But that assumes every tune you want is packaged with InterTrust’s encryption. If a music publisher chooses protective technology from Microsoft, Liquid Audio, IBM, or any one of a dozen others, start over. Imagine the VHS/Betamax videotape format war of the ’80s on steroids. Or going music shopping with different wallets for different brick-and-mortar stores.

Convenience as much as the desire for free stuff has a long history propelling media technology. Video cassette recorders allowed time and location shifting of TV programs and film. Audio cassettes beat out eight-track tapes because they let listeners record their own mix of tunes from vinyl.

True, distributing digital products online is not new. Downloadable, try-before-you-buy software known as shareware predates Napster by a couple of decades. Yet, Napster’s focus on entertainment and its resulting popularity more than 20 million users has inspired more media delivery mechanisms: Gnutella and AppleSoup for music; iMesh and for video; Swapoo for video games; and Wrapster, Aimster, FreeNet and a plethora of others for every kind of file format. As far as the Internet is concerned, bits is bits.

And the lawyers have followed. But don’t solely blame the entertainment conglomerates for bludgeoning these convenient new technologies. Blame Congress for providing the weapon: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. The DMCA allows suing not only those who infringe on copyrighted works, but those who provide technology that make it possible to infringe. It’s the DMCA that’s at the heart of the entertainment industry lawsuits against Napster, Scour, and a company that sells T-shirts listing the source code to DeCSS, a program to crack DVD encryption.

Napster is about convenience to sample before purchasing, convenience to get music anytime, convenience to listen anywhere. While the attorneys and anarchists battle it out, no one should lose sight of the higher goal coming up with a fast, fair online music distribution solution that’s just as easy to use as ripping music off.

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