Napster: The Internet Law Controversy

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Brett M. Steinberg.
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Last updated: November 30, 2000

The Future of Media on the Internet

The growing number of media types represented on the internet have caused a dramatic change in today's technology. Starting with the mega phone during the turn of the century, followed by the record player, cassette player, and then the CD player. Because of the pervasiveness of mp3 files on the Internet, new forms of technology such as mp3 players and "CD burners" now exist.

Due to the legal issues concerning the sharing of mp3 files on the Internet, companies like Napster will have no choice but to begin charging their customers for use of its services. Many Napster users would rather pay a fee for the service than not to use it at all. Although users may be used to the service at no charge, many have come to appreciate the service's value and cannot do without it. Napster's chief executive, Hank Barry, believes that users "want to work within a framework that's supported by the industry. And when we provide that to them, they'll flock to it".

If the recording industry handles business along with Napster and the other similar file-sharing websites, the profits may be in both parties' interest. However, not all musicians and composers feel that this is the case. Metallica is adamant about winning the case over copyright infringement and making a statement in the online music industry. Many loyal Napster fans have boycotted listening to Metallica's music out of principle. Whether or not this has affected Metallica's sales is unknown. In the future, music bought either on compact disc or online will have a computer code to prevent people from listening unless they have made a payment with a credit card. With this system, a person making a copy of a song for someone else is helping sell it for the record company because the new copy will have to be paid for before he or she can listen to it. Record labels may begin to sell music as computer files rather than tapes or compact discs. There will probably always be MP3s available and there will always be free alternatives.

Napster only marks the beginning of what the Internet will deliver to the world. Some examples of items people view or download on the Internet are:

  • Full-length movies (before they are even in the theater);
  • Food recipes;
  • Magazines, newspapers, and books;
  • Instant messaging and e-mail;
  • And let's not forget to mention: porn.

One of the major barricades preventing most people from hopping on the Internet bandwagon is bandwidth. Bandwidth, in layman's terms, is like a pipeline of water. If the pipe connected to your computer is thin, then it will take more time for the water to reach you. But if your pipe is large, the water is delivered fast.

The same theory applies to bandwidth, which is why the percentage of people utilizing the Internet is still so small. Most people are connected to the Internet through a 56K modem. To compare those users versus a cable modem user, a five-minute long mp3 will take 10-20 minutes with a modem where a cable modem would only take 1-2 minutes. This illustrates a major limitation for e-commerce and many other Internet functions.

Although limitations exist for many people that want to download music and other media types at a fast rate, more people are realizing that CD writers, or "burners," are getting cheaper each day. Furthermore, blank CD's are now as cheap as $.60-$1.00/each, which means these burners are actually paying for themselves. The RIAA usually raises CD prices up to $16-$17, and if you do the math, after burning about 12 CD's, the cost has been covered for a $200 burner. What makes this tempting by users is the ease at which it is done and the current technology that enables computer savvy users to create a compact disc with the music that is on the hard drive of his or her computer. This act of "burning a cd," as the term has been coined, is the exact point at which the law may interfere. Since Napster is legal as far as downloading music is concerned, the point at which a user makes the music into a hard format is where copyright becomes an issue. When users make a cd from the music on their hard drives, it is no longer in a temporary form of media usage.

The key in this new found media is to find uses that will benefit, rather than harm, all of the parties involved. The only way to make artists and Napster users happy is to ensure a profitable healthy business environment that neither infringes on the rights of citizens nor prevents artists from getting compensation or credit for their work. With recent settlements with Napster, the future of the service may be bright.

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