Napster No Match for 'Establishment,' Yet ; This Week's Ruling May Force the Internet Firm to Find a Way to Pay for Music-Trading
Paul Van Slambrouck writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Clobbered by the courts, the power team of Napster - the popular, free online music service - filed into a press conference once again this week.
Youthful founder and college dropout Shawn Fanning stood further back from the podium, and more stiffly, than the firm's dark- suited CEO and lawyer. The picture seemed a perfect representation of how the Internet Age has sought, however uncomfortably, a cohabitation with the Old World establishment.
That may be working within Napster, where Mr. Fanning's bright idea has drawn investors from the venture capital and entertainment industries. But outside the firm, the conventional business world remains largely hostile to Napster's upset-the-teacart model.
A ruling this week by the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Napster service aids copyright infringement. While online, a user who wants to swap music with another simply types in the artist or song desired and receives a directory of matches, any of which can be downloaded for free.
The service has become a pop-culture icon, trailblazing a technology path that alarmed the entertainment establishment by making a hash of its commercial underpinnings. Why buy a CD when you can get music for free?
Even if Napster as we know it disappears, the form of digital distribution it pioneered will likely be a lasting legacy - one to which the music industry itself is increasingly drawn.
Napster now boasts more than 50 million members and claims it doesn't violate copyright laws since it does not house or trade any music itself. It simply provides a directory of what members have available and the software to connect willing parties.
The court this week found otherwise, saying Napster knowingly encourages and assists its users to infringe, and could be liable for that activity when it does not stop the infringement.
For supporters and critics alike, the case goes beyond the issue of free music. Fans say Napster represents the promise of the Internet, a technology that can shift power from big business to consumers. For opponents, Napster is revolutionary all right, but in the wrong direction, undermining copyright protection.
Is compromise possible?
The question is whether there is a middle ground.
A number of legal analysts have suggested that the best resolution would be for the entertainment industry and Napster to find a workable compromise.
There is an ongoing attempt to do just that. Bertelsmann AG, a German media giant whose record-label subsidiary was originally one of the parties to the suit against Napster, switched gears last year and bought a $50 million stake in Napster. …