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And Justice For All: The Napster Chronicles

by Michele Manafy

May 24, 2020 | Since digital music hit the Web, it has spawned Pandora's boxes like Russian nesting dolls. Every time one box is opened, some controversial issue is unleashed and the instant it seems controlled, another appears more tenacious than the last. Napster, digital music's latest scapegoat, has been barraged with lawsuits accusing the company of everything from copyright infringement to racketeering.

Napster, a nifty piece of software that turns a user's home computer into a server and enables just about anyone with a modem to launch files into a searchable database, makes obtaining free music online-copyrighted commercial releases included-easier than it's ever been. Last December, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), representing the major music companies, struck back when it sued Napster for copyright violations. The RIAA also accused Napster of the unlawful use of digital audio interface device and violating the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

However, the litigation really heated up when metal icons Metallica took control of the bandwagon. Metallica filed suit with the U.S. District Court in California, alleging that Napster "encourages piracy by enabling and allowing users to trade copyrighted songs through its servers." Soon after, rapper Dr. Dre filed a $10 million dollar suit in federal court in Los Angeles, claiming that "Napster has built a business based on large-scale piracy."

At the time, Dr. Dre gave the company an ultimatum to remove all of his music from its directories or risk a suit, but Napster refused, stating that it bears no responsibility for any acts of piracy its users commit. Metallica gave Napster a similar directive, to which the company responded that it could not remove illegal copies of the band's music or restrict users unless Metallica could provide proof of specific violations.

At issue is whether a software maker is liable for the ways in which their products are used. The Napster case will depend heavily on how the courts interpret the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 and the Audio Home Recording Act (AHRA) of 1992. Most of the digital music-related computer software and hardware has not been accountabled under the AHRA because it is not used exclusively for copying music. Like MP3, CD-R, VCR, and other technologies used in copyright infringing activities, Napster meets the AHRA's requirement of having "substantial non-infringing uses," in that at its core Napster is simply a way of sharing files. But the DCMA casts the issue differently, and the recent prevailing wind in the courts has tended toward a less lenient interpretation.

On the other side of the issue, and following a great tradition of authority bucking, bands like The Offspring and Limp Bizkit openly support Napster and the MP3 model of music proliferation. Limp Bizkit has not only voiced support for Napster, but the band, along with opening act Cypress Hill, will also begin a free Napster-sponsored tour this July. Singer Fred Durst said, "We believe that the Internet and Napster should not be ignored by the music industry as tools to promote awareness of bands and to market music."

It does seem likely that the digital music boom will push the music industry toward a new business model in which bands and labels earn some sort of electronic royalties; threats like Napster, MyMP3, and Gnutella will simply hasten the process. But Limp Bizkit and other Napster supporters, however forward-looking in their attitudes, come off as somewhat naive as well. In the absence of such a royalty structure or track-by-track sales model, it's hard to imagine where they expect their income to come from after the likes of Napster makes much if not all of their music available online. For the vast majority of bands, touring is only profitable in that it stimulates album sales, and merchandise tie-ins, while lucrative, probably can't support the industry at the level at which record sales traditionally have. On the other hand, a new Web-based sales model could do away with the music "industry" as we know it, and mean more direct income for artists themselves. For better or worse, dial-up speeds and hard drive capacities are not up to the promise of an Internet music revolution quite yet.

Trading MP3 files eats up bandwidth and requires a fair amount of free time, which is why the keenest interest in Napster seems to come from college students with access to university networks with their mammoth servers and fast Internet connections. Chiming in with perhaps the only unequivocally valid complaint in the MP3-muddied Web waters, many universities are restricting the use of Napster. Citing both because legal ambiguity and the incredible bandwidth drain campus Napster use has become-imagine some significant portion of a school's population keeping multiple multi-megabyte uploads and downloads on the university server, and frequently sending the behemoth files in one direction or the other-more than 70 universities have banned the software and others have limited its use to weekends and issued warnings about possible legal issues. Indiana University, originally named in Metallica's suit, went so far as to join Metallica as a plaintiff. The University expressed concern that its "faculty, staff, and students could incur legal exposure if they use the technology."

Oregon State University, which has also blocked the use of Napster, claimed that it took up 20 percent of the school's bandwidth capacity. Chris White, network administrator for OSU's residential computer network, believes that the ban is only a short-term solution, however. "There are other programs out there and we can't block them all."

Another school named in the Metallica suit, The University of Southern California, has publicly stated that it will not ban the use of Napster. The move came after USC officials held a town meeting with the student body. However, the university has said that it will put limits on the total amount of bandwidth students are allowed to use. Elizabeth Brooks, Napster vice president of marketing, says Napster claims it is working with 20 schools to develop ways to lessen the blow to computer systems. Brooks said solutions vary based on the school, but one of the best ways is for the university to prioritize its traffic. She says, "Something that is recreational traffic can be put on a lower priority. Nobody ever wanted Napster to get in the way of educational traffic."

Chris Paulson, an Indiana University student, is collecting signatures for an online petition to get the university to follow USC's lead and open a public dialogue about Napster. Paulson understands the bandwidth concerns, but feels more effort should have been made to educate students about network bandwidth issues before a ban was put in place.

Metallica's beef is not bandwidth, though, and in its latest move, the band will take on Napster users--and Metallica fans--head on. Armed with 13 cardboard boxes of Napster user names and IP addresses, Lars Ulrich (the band's drummer) said the band was prepared to lose some fans over the lawsuit.

Napster responded by removing more than 300,000 users accused of copyright violations from its site. "We intend to fully comply with the DMCA and our policies," reads a statement posted on the Napster site. "We will take down all users Metallica has alleged, under penalty of perjury, to be infringing." The company said that users who feel they were banned in error can submit a request to be reinstated.

Metallica fans have expressed surprise at the band's "unhip" attitude toward the MP3 explosion, but others believe they are "just an aging dinosaur band looking for media attention."

Though he hasn't commented on Metallica specifically, Durst agrees with the sentiment. "We could care less about the older generation's need to keep doing business as usual," he says. "We care more about what our fans want--and our fans want music on the Internet."


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