The swapping of music files may be ruled illegal, but copyright law doesn't stand a chance, says Ty Burr

August 02, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Don’t count on a Napster shutdown

Here’s a statistic that I like a lot but that I simply cannot fathom: Despite an imminent, Federal court ordered shutdown, Napster’s traffic was up at the end of last week. Way up. In fact, there were 92 percent more visitors to last Friday than there were the previous Tuesday. And of those increased visitors, 22 percent of them downloaded the Napster file-sharing software program, versus 13.5 percent three days before.

Now, I ask you: Why would you want to own a piece of software made by a company that will, in all likelihood, be out of business when the matter goes to trial in September? True, late on July 28, an appeals court postponed a judge’s order that would have shut down Shawn Fanning’s baby over the weekend, but anyone following the news closely will realize that copyright laws, as archaic and unfit for the Internet Age as they are, are clearly on the side of the Recording Industry Association of America. It’s pretty much a sure thing that, in the absence of any kind of alternate business plan, Napster will be chum for the lawyers within two months — after which the RIAA will go after iMesh and Scour and Gnutella and all the other programs that let fans swap music.

Those later lawsuits may or may not be successful, depending upon how willing the CEOs of those companies are to cut a deal, any deal. But Napster looks to be the lamb sacrificed on the altar of copyright. So why is the site more popular than ever? Some theories:

1. There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Or: More people are checking out Napster because more people are hearing about it because the court battle has landed the company on the front page of USA Today. Call this the Lemming Theory, which assumes that if you put ANY Web address on the front page of USA Today, the site’s traffic will double.

2. We are the world, we are the Napster community. The increase is a show of support. In the short time that Napster’s been around, it’s become the de facto watercooler for millions of college kids and twentysomethings. Simply put, this is how a generation is learning to listen to and share music, in much the same way as early FM radio stations spread the word about albums that never would have made Casey Kasem’s Top 40. Is Napster a way to get a single without buying the full CD? Then maybe labels and artists should think twice about surrounding one hit with 17 cuts of crapola padding. Is it undercutting CD sales in general? Perhaps — but why are most Napster users I know buying more CDs than ever? Is it wrong to take music for free? I don?t know, dude — you figure it out. The pure simplicity and ease behind the file sharing concept make it inevitable and, in a way, beyond morality: Fighting it in court is like trying to litigate the wind.

3. Just learning the ropes, ma’am. Even if Napster gets sacked, the free music free for all has just begun. Since Wednesday’s court decision, downloads of Gnutella, the Napster like file sharing software created by WinAmp’s Justin Frankel, have soared, and since Gnutella doesn?t exist as a site or a company (you can get the program at a shifting legion of underground digital outposts), it can?t be served with any subpoenas. Nifty, eh? And even if Gnutella was put down somehow, other sites and other software would spring up. Yes, you need to be a bit of a technogeek to work some of these programs — but what better place to learn the basics than at It may be that Napster’s ultimate legacy will be as a training camp for the coming revolution. And make no mistake — it IS coming, and there’s nothing that the RIAA, federal judges, or Lars Ulrich can do about it.

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