Computer savvy music lovers know about Napster, the Internet music-sharing software. As I recently used Napster to get one of my favorite tunes, downloading the software made me one of Napster's 60 million members.
Once in the club, I just clicked the search button and entered my artist and title. From the resulting list I picked a Napster member willing to share the Beatles' "Rocky Raccoon." Simple as pie and totally free.
For this we thank Shawn Fanning. Fanning is the 20-year-old student who built Napster in his Boston (Northeastern University) dorm room. With help from his uncle, Fanning launched one of the fastest growing enterprises on the Internet, and one of its most controversial.
Controversial because the procedure I just described is illegal. Napster argued in federal court that providing software did not make the firm liable for its users' copyright violations. The Recording Industry Association of America argued the opposite.
And in March, San Francisco U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ordered Napster to prevent sharing of copyrighted music.
Napster has been partially successful in fulfilling this request, resulting in fewer songs for members to share.
But the recording industry and courts cannot erase the public's experience, since millions of people now understand how simple and inexpensive online music sharing can be.
What Napster cannot provide them, others will. Some Napster users have already fooled the court-imposed screening system by naming music in pig Latin -- Madonna becomes adonnaM, and so on.
A site similar to Napster, called Aimster, features the defiant slogan "Can't touch this," referring to Napster's legal troubles. In yet another effort, a Canadian college student is collecting contributions to locate a Napster clone on an artificial island in international waters near England. Built for naval defense and then abandoned, these man-made islands housed pirate radio stations during the 1960s. They are now home to Internet Service Providers who advertise immunity from national laws.
Thomas Middelhoff, the CEO of the German music distributor Bertelsmann AG, one of the world's largest recording companies, blames his own recording industry for creating the gap now filled by Napster.
Says Middelhoff, "[Recording industry] management put greater trust in lawyers than in Internet experts who told them to take advantage of the Internet for distribution of [their] music to establish an alternative to illegal distribution of music online."
Middelhoff would like to see a system that respects intellectual property rights while better responding to online music lovers. Features may include letting customers build their own CDs, rather than buying several songs to get one they want, giving royalty-paying buyers priority at concerts, and so on.
His company provided Napster with $50 million to develop such a system by this July.
The music industry has always tolerated non-commercial bootlegging by individuals, if only for lack of ways to stop it. Continuing to do so will not be a disaster, for them or anyone else. Music is not like other products. While two people can't eat the same apple, many can enjoy the same song. Similarly, the bootlegged song (unlike the stolen apple) can still be sold to paying customers. The music bootlegger's sin (if it can be called that) is ducking his fair share of the cost of making the music we all enjoy.
Napster points out its members are also avid CD buyers, suggesting many downloads are previews leading to later purchases.
In any event, stopping online bootlegging would not always lead to a sure increase in retail sales, since what bootleggers can't download from the Internet, they can copy from friends or from radio and TV.
Established stars may lose income if their work is extensively copied, but newcomers may gain long-term income from the added exposure provided by online music sharing.
I think Middelhoff has the right solution: Tailor the delivery of royalty-paying music to online customers, then live with the remaining bootlegging. It is Shawn Fanning, though, who remains my hero. It is hard to imagine today, but business was not the Internet's original purpose. Its founders and early users were scientists, who believe knowledge should be created and distributed for the benefit of all, not controlled for profit or other parochial purpose.
Whatever Fanning's real motives are, a college kid helping the world share its music reaffirms that vision.