Enter Metallica, Exit Napster

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Metallica's getting a lot of flack from Webheads for their recent legal actions against Napster, maker of a powerful MP3 search-and-sharing engine. Reactions range from the attempted eBay auction of Metallica's integrity to former-fan vitriol to a dismissive "they just don't get it."

Wrong. The conventional wisdom we've all supposedly derived from this brouhaha doesn't get it -- and neither do a lot of the people weighing in on the debate.

The most important thing to realize -- and the one thing rarely, if ever, discussed when we talk about Napster and MP3 piracy -- is that the most fundamental thing about Napster isn't under attack. Napster isn't valuable because it lets people get free music -- it's the way it lets them get it.

Instead of relying on one server to distribute a file to many computers, Napster proves that diffuse computer networks, where many users connect with many others simultaneously, can really work. This opens up all sorts of possibilities for distributing everything from e-books to web-based applications without fear of a network bottleneck.

Metallica's not suing because they're opposed to many-to-many networking. They're suing because they're opposed to the theft of their intellectual property.

Who wouldn't be? A lot of Web sites have the same concerns -- why else would site designers bother with a copyright statement, or rigorously pursue people who rip off page designs?

Now imagine a Napster-like system that lets you search for, and download specific images or even Web page code. People can rip off sites based on search engines and software now; imagine how much more rapidly your Web site could get ripped off if someone was searching for specific content. If you make your living from your Web site design work, writing, or graphic art, you could stand to lose a lot of money to imitators who repurpose your work as their own for a cut rate.

That's just a hypothetical situation, of course, but the parallel holds: Metallica loses money when their studio recordings get ripped off. Now that the large acts have caught on to how much money they stand to lose from free copies circulating around the Net, count on new, legal ways for you to get MP3s.

Sound quality and ease of transfer -- two of the things that separate MP3s from second-generation tape recordings of your favorite songs -- are the two qualities that will likely drive new MP3 business. Look for things like "test-driving" an MP3, where you could download the file and listen to it for twenty-four hours before the file inserts an insistent buzz and becomes unbearable; to get rid of the buzz, return to the site and pay a dollar, then use a validation code to "unlock" the buzzing file. Alternately, people could subscribe to a private download service, where a flat fee like $300 annually lets them download unlimited MP3s with unique license numbers. If someone hasn't already figured out how to pair MP3 availability and sound quality to a proprietary tracking system, they will soon.

When that happens, will it be a good or bad thing for music lovers? Some may argue that it's antithetical to the Net's information-wants-to-be-free ethos, or that it's just proof that record companies are out to rip off customers.

But there's a counterargument: while acts like Metallica aren't likely to be hurting for cash, there are scores of smaller musicians who can scarcely afford to record a studio album. Passing around those smaller acts' work for free may actually drive them out of business; if you can't afford to record your work, you'll stop doing it. The net result: smaller acts drop by the wayside, and the music industry gets a little more stagnant.

What Metallica's doing is using their clout to insist that music is a valuable commodity. Smaller musical acts will benefit from that clout; in the long run, anyone who listens to music will too.

What do you think about Napster and other forms of digital music distribution? Let your feelings be known in our forum, below. Also, check out our exclusive Macworld interviews with Lars Ulrich of Metallica and Chuck D of Public Enemy.

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