Singing the Napster Blues

Chances are, you like tracking down your favorite MP3 songs on the Web and downloading them to your hard drive. But a company whose services allow you to do just that has landed in legal hot water, and the resulting dispute could have a severe impact on what you can and can't download online.

The company, Napster, offers software that allows users to search through terabytes (thousands of gigabytes) of music files and download them for free. Popular versions of Napster software for the Mac include Macster, Macstar, and Rapster–all currently in prerelease form.

Nothing is actually stored on Napster's servers. Users download files directly from one another's hard drives; Napster simply provides the interface for searching and connecting with those drives.

That is not acceptable to the Recording Industry Association of America, a music-company trade organization that has filed suit against Napster. The RIAA says it's fighting to protect the rights of recording artists, some of whom are waging their own legal fight against Napster–the heavy-metal band Metallica and rapper Dr. Dre have also filed lawsuits.

Napster insists it's done nothing wrong. A company disclaimer notes that Napster has no control over content and warns users that they're responsible for complying with all copyright laws. Napster users must also agree not to use the software to infringe on others' intellectual property.

Mac users have more than a sporting interest in how the legal fight shakes down. The Napster suits could determine the way that materials get distributed over the Internet in the future. A Napster loss could limit which files are available online–and how much you'd have to pay to retrieve them. A Napster win could force record companies to rethink the way they do business.

More than just the fate of MP3 files is at stake. The future of digital video could also be affected. Already, two Web sites have been blocked from offering DeCSS, a utility that lets users break the copy protection used in DVD movies. DeCSS is the only tool that allows Linux users to watch DVDs.

Even though the Napster lawsuits have yet to go to trial, it's already clear that the digital-music market is too lucrative for record companies to ignore. This dispute is one to keep an eye on as you build your own MP3 library.

July, 2000 page: 25

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