The Internet. It is a vast network of millions of users, surfing and sharing billions of files, all day, every day. This scares many copyright holders out of their minds. After all, there is virtually no one to protect these copyright holders from the misuse of their intellectual property – certainly not the dinosaur that is our government. But, as Scott Sullivan, writer for The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin stated, “as history has proven, freedom and technological and societal advances usually come with a price.” The price society is paying for the Internet is a loss of copyright protection by laws for their intellectual material.
Take Napster for instance. It is a simple program created by a young college student named Shawn Fanning that enables users to anonymously swap and share audio files known as MP3s. When it first came into existence, it only had 3,000 or so users. However, according to Chris Sherman, writer for the magazine Online, says “Napster has become the most successful new Web technology ever, gaining more than 25 million registered users in just over a year or existence.”
At the beginning of its life, Napster could probably have easily been protected by the Audio Home Recording Act, “which gives consumers the right to create and transfer digital music for noncommercial purposes.” (Sherman) At this point, however, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) begs to differ. They believe “the fact that millions of users can share songs with one another is an egregious violation of copyright and constitutes outright ‘theft’ of intellectual property.” (Sherman) They have won a lawsuit under this argument against Napster in early 2001, so the program may go offline unless a compromise is reached.
Unfortunately, it’s a fairly simple job to shut down Napster permanently because of its centralized service. However “file sharing, a mainstay of Web activity that’s considered almost a ‘right’ by many users, is too popular to stomp out in one fell swoop” (Sherman) The technology under which Napster operates, File Transfer Protocol (FTP), has been in use since 1971. It would be as difficult to destroy this technology as it would music itself.
But, that’s what the RIAA insists on attempting to do. Instead of embracing and adapting FTP and MP3s, they mindlessly attempt to crush it, like they do to all new technology. Alex Torralbas, who has worked in the recording industry, states, “in the 1980s they effectively killed the digital audio tape, and in the ‘70s, albums and tapes bore skull-and-crossbones stickers warning buyers against taping the music on cassettes.” The MP3 is nothing new to the RIAA – just another piece of technology to instinctively crush.
“The record industry’s business model is pure Industrial Age; manufacturing and shipping pieces of plastic. MP3 and other forms of digital music threaten this model.” (Torralbas) It doesn’t matter that this technology would effectively allow RIAA to come into the Digital Age by letting users directly download music, bypassing the CD stage (for a small fee, of course). It doesn’t matter that, if Napster does shut down, virtually millions of music fans will be wondering where they can download music. It doesn’t matter that the majority of those same fans would be willing to pay money for downloadable music. Millions of people want easily accessible music, whether they pay for it or not, and if the RIAA doesn’t realize that soon, no amount of lawsuits will prevent them from becoming extinct.
The United States Supreme Court has made its ruling against Napster, but how will it hold up in reality, or more specifically, on the Internet? In some cases, the law is extremely inadequate protections, and the Internet is one such case. Simply put, the Internet is too expansive to be governed by conventional laws. “The Web offers anonymity and a buffer from getting caught.” (Sullivan) If a major crime has been committed, such as Vladimir Levin’s theft of $10 million dollars, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is competent enough to track down the criminal and put him or her behind bars. But what of the case of simple copyright violation? Is it really feasible to drag out some FBI agents to track down some high school child who downloads Metallica off Napster?
“The Internet needs…officers on the Internet [who] would act as the liaison between the online public and law enforcement agencies, policing the Internet in much the same way they police the streets.” (Sullivan) Just as cities need beat officers to stop minor crimes and enforce the law, online communities need an equivalent to enforce the law online.
But, since the law is virtually nonexistent online, people are free to do what they want, which includes downloading MP3s for free. Perhaps if the Internet did have beat officers regularly checking out the latest programs and technologies, Napster would not have gone so long unchecked, growing slowly out of hand. Even if “law enforcement is springing into action to fight Internet crime” (Sullivan), they are not springing nearly fast enough. How many more lawsuits will it take to convince the government that a police presence is required on the Internet?
It may not matter whether Napster survives its lawsuit or not, since dozens of similar programs are rising to take its place. Like a digital hydra, if one program is slain, two or more will grow to take its place. These programs are also attempting to correct the unintentional error made by Napster’s creator – a centralized server system. Such a system allows Napster to easily be shut down. Programs like Gnutella and FreeNet, though, have a decentralized server system. The only way to shut down these programs is to individually shut down and erase the program from each machine – an impossible task. However, there are no programs like this as user-friendly as Napster yet, but only time will show us what develops.
As the Internet evolves, companies and governments are forced to evolve along with it. If the RIAA does not start making MP3s available for download soon, they may not survive the Digital Age. If the government does not start making the law more present online, the Interment may slip into ungovernable chaos. However, this technology is not so different as the radio or television, so I am confident in the future of the government, and possibly the RIAA
Torralbas, Alex. “Napster Case a Wake-up Call for Record Labels.” Computerworld 7 August 2000. Expanded Academic Index. 23 Feb. 2001.
Snider, Michael, and Chris Wood. “The Heirs of Napster: If the Music Sharing Site Goes Down, Others Are Ready to Move In.” Maclean’s 26 February 2001. Expanded Academic Index. 26 Feb. 2001.
Stephen, Andrew. “Perfect for Music Lovers – Or Thieves.” New Statesman 4 Sept. 2000. Expanded Academic Index. 24 Feb. 2001.
Sullivan, Scott. “Policing the Internet.” The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin June 1999. Expanded Academic Index. 25 Feb. 2001.