February 16, 2001

The Land Of The Free

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For the past few months, college students across the world have held their breath, waiting to hear what the final fate of Napster might be, as a flood of lawsuits and appeals have made all the proceedings surrounding Napster seem impossible to follow. Of course, last Monday was the date set for a crucial ruling in the case but, predictably, even that proved to be ambiguous as far as determining the ultimate outcome of this whole mess.

For those of you who have been hibernating for the past few years, Napster is a program that allows users all over the world to share music files — called MP3s — with other users. Needless to say, this free distribution of music has not sat well with the ever-greedy recording industry, and Napster has faced a deluge of lawsuits from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), as well as such formerly cool artists as Metallica and Dr. Dre.

In July 2000, a U.S. District Court judge hearing the Napster case imposed a preliminary injunction on the software distributor, ordering them to cease operation of their file-sharing network until the court could determine whether or not Napster was indeed in violation of copyright law. Napster appealed, and the injunction was held back until a higher court could hear the appeal — which happened Monday. The somewhat confusing results of this decision are public knowledge now, but what does it all really mean?

The short version: Napster will be staying open (and free) for at least a little while longer. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday declared “that the scope of the injunction needs modification in light of our opinion.” The Appeals Court called the injunction “overbroad,” and requested that the lower court modify it so as to limit Napster’s responsibility to regulate its program.

On a less encouraging note, though, the Appeals Court also said, “a preliminary injunction against Napster’s participation in copyright infringement is… required.” The Court also rejected virtually every argument Napster has presented in its own defense, while affirming the positions presented by the RIAA’s lawyers. In doing so, the court has basically guaranteed that Napster will soon be forced to close down, possibly switching over to the fee-based system that has been rumored to be in the works ever since Napster struck a deal with Bertelsmann AG, the parent company of record label BMG.

So, what does this all mean? Well, for one, it means that the already monopolistic record companies will gain still more control over the distribution of music. It means that all the unsigned and local artists who can’t distribute their music through channels other than online will now have to find somewhere else to go. It means that all the independent bands and labels — most of whom support MP3-sharing — will now have lost a powerful tool for marketing their music. And it means that the corporate music machine that has flooded store shelves with nothing but crappy music recently, while steadily raising prices into astronomical ranges, will now have a chance to screw up the online music system as well. Yay.

Is There Life After Napster? Hell Yeah!

I for one won’t be paying 15 bucks to sign on to the new corporate Napster. Not when there are tons of free alternative methods of getting my MP3 fix. As a public service, here’s a few of the better file-serving utilities that currently exist.

Gnutella (http://gnutella.wego.com): Currently, the best of the non-Napster MP3 alternatives. While Napster operated on a central server, Gnutella allows individual PCs to act as servers, making it virtually impossible to shut down. The original program ate up ridiculous amounts of bandwidth and was difficult to use without a degree in computer science, but subsequent upgrades have fixed those problems. The best of the Gnutella software now is probably Gnucleus, though ToadNode and LimeWire are also popular. And if you still need an incentive, you can also download any type of file, including movies, images, and even text. So get the song, then get the music video, thereby pissing off both the RIAA and MTV.

Napigator (http://www.napigator.com): Wanna keep using Napster without forking over any cash? Napigator lets you do just that, by connecting you to one of hundreds of hard-to-track pirate servers all over the world that use the familiar Napster interface. Just click on a server, and Napster opens, but without the evil threat of having to pay for your music.

FreeNet/Espra (http://freenet.sourceforge.net): Here’s another multimedia download program based on the Gnutella idea of decentralization. The FreeNet software isn’t yet perfect for downloading MP3s, but the soon-to-come Espra promises to be better. Espra should be unique among file-sharing progs for including a “Tip The Artist” link to allow users to show their appreciation directly to artists via a monetary contribution. Good idea, and it certainly makes a lot more sense to give money to, say, Radiohead, rather than Sony.

Archived article by Ed Howard