Napster How free music will change the planet
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, April 6, 2000
It’s hard to overstate the significance of the rise of Napster. Some say it’s just another expression of human greed, a manifestation of the desire to get something for nothing.
But the seemingly inconsequential act of trading music online may eventually come to be seen in a much more positive light; as a critical turning point when consumers, and not just open-source programmers, began using the Internet to breathe new life into the human instinct for community and for helping one another.
But before we get to the larger implications, let’s first explain how Napster works.
Once installed, the free Napster software gives users access to the MP3 music files on the hard drives of any other online members of the Napster community. In return, Napster users are expected, but not required, to give other Napster users access to any MP3 files on their hard drives.
There are currently more than 500,000 songs available within the Napster music community, which usually has hundreds of linked participating computers.
And remember, we’re talking about a phenomenon that is just a few months old. The number of available songs is sure to grow.
There are some serious ethical and legal concerns about Napsterism.
A few popular MP3s are being distributed with the permission of their creators. But the vast majority of the digital tunes now available through Napster are pirated, high-quality commercial recordings of everyone from Frank Sinatra to Erykah Badu.
The dimensions of the ethical problems involved hit me particularly hard while I was downloading a favorite Bob Dylan song last week.
Others are free to disagree, but I know I’m not alone when I confess to loving, even revering Bob Dylan. The thought of ripping him off, of taking his art without paying for it, seems a karmic hazard of the highest order.
Midway through the download, I clicked the mouse button to cancel.
Then I thought it over.
I’m not sure yet whether my thinking process represents good solid reasoning or just opportunistic rationalizing, but I eventually came to the conclusion downloading Dylan’s tune didn’t constitute theft. At least, not for me.
After all, I had paid Dylan and his record company for that particular tune on at least four prior occasions. Back in the early seventies, I bought the song on a vinyl LP. A few years later, I purchased the same song on an obsolescence-bound eight-track tape. In the early eighties, I paid even more for it on cassette and finally, just a few years ago, anted up again for a re-released CD.
I figured Dylan would be fine with a freebie for my fifth purchase. Sort of like a frequent-buyer discount.
While that may — or may not — have resolved my personal ethical dilemma about that one particular song and artist, it does nothing at all to address the larger issues.
What about people who have never paid a dime for the songs they download? How can the recording industry, and the artists it supports, survive if it’s no longer necessary for people to purchase recordings in order to own them?
That’s the new world we’re entering.
The lesson of Napsterism is that anything that can be digitized will be digitized; and that once something is digitized it can, and inevitably will, be freely shared over the Internet.
We’re not just talking about music here.
We’re also talking about all other human creations that can be digitized: paintings, photos, books, movies, and poetry, to name a few, as well as virtually all forms of human knowledge, from cooking recipes to computer programming lessons to brain chemistry archives.
Ironically, just a decade after it seemed the Cold War had finally ended the often-bloody argument between capitalists and communists, the technology behind Napster is helping to re-divide the world along similar philosophical lines.
One the one hand, you have the old-line capitalists, the survival-of-the-fittest crowd, who take their lessons from Charles Darwin. For them, it’s a dog-eat-dog world where the main goal is to make sure your dog wins.
And then you have a much smaller band of communitarians who, knowingly or not, take their cues from the perceptive but lesser-known Russian philosopher, Peter Kropotkin, who made his name taking on Darwinsim.
Kropotkin maintained that the tendency toward what he called “mutual aid,” the desire to be of voluntary service to one another, represents the highest, most-advanced stage of evolution. Ants have prospered as a species, Kropotkin would argue, due to their innate sense of community, not because they are individually able to slash one another’s throats.
Darwin’s followers had the edge for most of the last century, which culminated as it did in the fall of the Soviet bloc, an experience that proved Kropotkin’s vision could not be imposed by government fiat.
But the rise of Napsterism may prove that Kropotkin didn’t have it all wrong.
The open-source computer programming movement was an early form of Napsterism. And, most likely, there are many more to come. Just imagine the possibilities.
The advent of cheap canvas-like flat panel displays, for example, means it might be possible to have a digital Renoir on our wall one night, and a Picasso the next. Although it sounds like a telecom commercial, every song, drama, movie, all works ever recorded will be available on someone’s computer somewhere, which means that should they choose to share, it will be available to everyone everywhere.
Breaking an embargo on any form of digital goods will require just one person willing to share that item online.
We might, for example, see similar Napster-like communities centered on other activities. Cooking recipes, for example, could be freely exchanged through a culinary community that links hard drives together; child-rearing strategies, resources and ideas, through a parenting community.
Whether it’s architecture, computer skills, plumbing techniques, or dress-making patterns, virtually every facet of life might well be touched by the growing momentum of Napster-like sharing communities.
Sharing communities feed on themselves. More resources become available as more people join. As more resources become available, even more people join. Those who don’t participate, on the other hand, find themselves isolated by the very selfishness they thought would be their protection.
The advent of sharing communities does, however, pose a significant set of problems for those who used to sell whatever items are being shared. Like it or not, they’re going to have to find new ways to support their creative processes.
Take recording artists, for example.
Although the recording industry is trying, it’s far too late to put the MP3 genie back in the bottle. Record industry execs currently hope to figure out some nifty technical fix. They’re banking on more powerful encryption technologies, digital watermarketing services, or a similar solution to the problem of pirated digital recordings.
But there will be no fix. At least, no lasting fix.
Any digital file that can be played on one device can be captured and recorded in its exact original form by some other device. Period. End of story.
What’s more, any file that can be encrypted can eventually be decrypted. After all, both sides have access to the same computing power.
For recording artists, this means they probably won’t be able to count on making most of their money through sales of their recordings in the years ahead. One can argue whether that’s fair or not, or whether it’s a good or bad thing. Either way, though, it’s inevitable.
The only alternative is to give some authority the right to inspect and approve every single digital transmission sent and received, a level of intrusion into our lives that most would find intolerable were it even possible, which it is not.
That doesn’t mean recording artists are destined to go broke. But recording artists, like others who sell digital goods, will have to find new, more creative ways to generate income.
Fortunately, there’s reason to hope wider distribution of free music will make good artists more popular than ever. The best of them might even get smart and start charging what the market will bear when they make live appearances.
That could mean higher average ticket prices. But that seems a fair trade-off for free recordings. In the old days, record sales were the music industry’s dog and live concerts the marketing tail. In the future, we’ll be looking at an entirely different animal.
Recording artists might, for example, offer preferred ticket deals to fans who buy subscriptions, sell advertising on websites where they distribute the complete collection of their own MP3s, or provide more personalized services, such as custom-made or even autographed CDs and posters.
Many younger artists have already embraced the MP3 format. They realize it represents something long dreamed of, a way to get music in front of the masses without having to cut a deal with industry gatekeepers first.
More established acts may see this as an unwelcome development, but recordings of all kinds will eventually become loss-leaders, similar to the below-cost sale items that lead consumers into a store so they can be sold something else.
It’s possible at least some artists will fare even better in the long run as they find new ways to generate cash from an even larger community of fans.
In the meantime, Napster-like sharing communities will soon begin to transform many other areas of our social and economic life. The underlying enabling technology now being used to trade music files makes the rise of these new sharing communities all but certain.
We’ll all lead richer lives the more people share what they have or know.
Peter Kropotkin wouldn’t have been a bit surprised.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.