Napster fever reaches Kaua’i

Jubilant cheers were heard even on Kaua’i last Friday, when Napster won a temporary reprieve just hours before a midnight deadline to shut down its song-swapping service.

Those who care know that Napster is the brainchild of a Boston, Mass., college student who had never written a software application, yet found a way last year to use the Internet to share songs on his computer with a friend in Virginia.

His concept, now called peer-to-peer computing, created an Internet phenomenon and grew into a private company, complete with a CEO.

Napster Inc. attracted millions of dollars worth of investment capital and millions of users around the world, who eagerly downloaded free software from Napster’s website that allowed them to exchange MP3 music files.

The majority of Napster’s initial users were college students. But today, the network includes an estimated 20 million people of all ages from all over the world, even this tiny island in the middle of the Pacific.

Concerned that Napster was costing them millions of dollars in potential sales, the recording industry and a few individual artists filed suit against the company, charging copyright infringement. Last Wednesday, a federal judge agreed. Saying Napster had “created a monster,” she granted an injunction that would have halted the exchange of files until the case is decided in court.

Napster quickly appealed and two federal appellate judges ruled there were substantial questions about the “merit and form” of the shutdown injunction and said the service could continue until the trial.

The controversy has generated strong opinions on both sides of the issue. But most agree that, right or wrong, free music across the Internet is here to stay, no matter what happens to Napster.

On Kaua’i, as everywhere else, there is no typical Napster user. Songs are being “shared’ by users ranging from high school kids to computer experts.

Most acknowledge that the recording industry has a valid gripe. But, as one user said after hearing that Napster wouldn’t be shut down, “We’re probably breaking the law, but we have to continue.” A few local users were willing to share their experiences and views on Napster as long as their names were changed to protect the “guilty.” Kelly just discovered Napster through a friend a month or so ago.

She logs in early mornings before she goes to work and late at night, and has found several favorite oldies online.

Thinking about her life before Napster, she said, “If Napster closes, I guess I can always return to those activities … sleeping, going to the gym, doing laundry, shopping, working on my hobby and cleaning house.” Napster provoked a minor “disagreement of the minds” for one Kaua’i couple.

Roxanne justifies her use of the service by pointing out that the only songs she has downloaded were those she had already bought at one time or another. She searches for personal favorites that she had once owned on cassette or had lost that were no longer available for purchase.

Her husband, Joe, however, said he wouldn’t be sad to see Napster off the map.

“I’m concerned about Napster’s impact on the artists,” he said. “They deserve some kind of compensation for their intellectual work, otherwise there won’t be anything for us to listen to.” Joe said he could imagine himself as a musician trying to make a living, with people “ripping off my stuff.” “Unfortunately,” he added, “technology is going to bring the music industry down to a point where they are going to have to seek a solution, perhaps selling to people online.” The music industry’s high-priced CDs, however, are a major factor in Napster’s success, Tim contends. He says the recording industry should be investigated for price-fixing and antitrust violations.

“The music recording-distributing industry, as it is configured now, is a dinosaur, with about the intelligence of a dinosaur looking at an asteroid heading for Earth: They are looking at their own demise and not comprehending it,” he said.

He wondered whether libraries would be the industry’s next target.

“It’s the same basic concept: Buying one copy of an artist’s work and making it available to thousands of people who don’t pay for it. Libraries do that with books, and they do that with music and video, too—on a massive scale,” he said, adding that there’s a reason collections of music files on Napster are called libraries.

Edward was one of the first people to discover the Napster network last year. He loves it because it gives him the opportunity to collect the “old music.” He has downloaded about 2,500 songs, including most of Frank Sinatra’s recordings.

The recording industry, Edward believes, is fighting a losing battle.

“Really, the only effective way to shut down or control free music across the Internet is to shut down the Internet. There are no two ways about it,” he said.

In his opinion, Napster is just a tool by which the Internet community accesses MP3 files.

“Shut them down … and a hundred more will spring up the very next day,” he predicted.

Far worse than the recording industry’s losses, Tim said, would be the loss of something he considers even more important: The exposure for unknown artists.

“The most important reason for Napster’s existence — and of 20 or more similar sites — is the opportunity it gives to unknown artists who are new or not widely known. Those who weren’t the next Metallica clone or ‘nSync clone or Britney Spears clone, didn’t get a recording contract, or if they did the record label decided not to promote and market them and let them wither on the vine,” Tim said.

“It makes me sad to think of the thousands of musicians who never made it, and the pain and sadness they suffer when they’re not able to share their feelings and their talents with others because they have to work in some office cubicle to support themselves.

It comes back to sharing,” he said.

Someday, Napster’s technology may be adapted in ways that will balance the interests of all concerned.

“The music industry should come up with a plan for the honest people of the world to make it easy for them to purchase the music online at a reduced cost, because it doesn’t involve any manufacturing, packaging or materials,” Joe said. “They could sell music song by song rather than by album. Consumers could choose exactly what they want and pay for it, like royalties.” Tim took the idea a step further, saying he wouldn’t mind paying for music the way he pays for cable TV and radio: One set monthly fee that gets consumers all the music they want. In the future, he sees the industry breaking up into studios and distributors: “Studios would find and nurture and record musicians; distributors would be like another utility, shipping the music to your house over cables.” No matter what the future holds, there’s no doubt the Napster phenomenon has earned a place in Internet history.

Rita De Silva can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 241) or rdesilva@pulitzer.net.

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