Some people still dont understand the lessons of Napster.
In sum, this is what Napsters rise and fall has taught us: First, everyone loves free, unlimited music. Second, people who create music and other content have the right to control what happens to it.
But some smart people believe that Napster was wrongly persecuted, or that some court rulings finding Napster liable for massive contributory copyright infringement are a dangerous precedent. For example, Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford University, acknowledges that copyright laws should be preserved in the digital era. Yet he says we should wait 10 years to let peer-to-peer (P2P) technologies develop without any regulation. Apparently, Lessig believes that even if youre breaking the law, by profiting from content you dont own, you should get a free ride if youre cooking up supposedly innovative new technologies.
Earlier this year, a national magazine published an essay in which the writer — who shall remain nameless — defended Napster on the basis of free speech. The thrust of the piece was that by shutting down Napster, governments would clear the way to “enforce a frightening level of control of information movement.” I e-mailed the writer, telling him I was going to include his essay in a new magazine I was starting called Wrong-Headed Ideas Monthly. I told him that, based on his arguments supporting Napsters free flow of information, I assumed he wouldnt mind if I simply reprinted his text in its entirety. I never received a reply.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is also concerned about the Napster rulings. The EFF is worried that P2P developers will be sued if their software is used to exchange copyrighted material. But this fear is unfounded. P2P is thriving in many non-copyright-infringing apps.
In any case, the backlash against Napster in the popular press — oh, heck, lets call it a Naplash — began the very day Napster lost its appeal. One year ago, Shawn Fanning was the cool, anti-establishment boy wonder smirking on the cover of Time magazine. Now hes a duplicitous has-been. The Wall Street Journal all but called Fanning a hypocrite in a recent item describing his answer to the question of why Napster doesnt make its source code freely available. “It became a business issue,” Fanning stammered, according to the Journal.
Look, nobody blinks when the recording industry busts a counterfeit-CD factory. The reaction shouldnt be any different when Napster gets the same treatment. Fannings fall from grace in the court of public opinion is evidence that more people are coming to this conclusion.