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Napster, Madster deadster

This may be the beginning of the end for file swapping.

The story of the week is the liquidation of Napster. After a judge blocked its sale to Bertlesmann AG, and with no other bidders, Napster’s remaining staff had no other choice but to liquidate. This is no surprise, but it does represent another domino in a long sequence of precedent-setting events that further restrict the realm of public domain in intellectual-property law. News on our site this Monday refers to yet another domino–Madster, one of the dozens of Napster knock-offs, which was slapped with a temporary injunction to cease all file swapping on the site.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has been on a crusade against peer-to-peer file swapping since the success of Napster opened its eyes to widespread copyright infringement. Madster is its latest, but not its last, victim. Combined with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and wielding the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), there is no end in sight in further restricting public access to creative work. The attacks are not limited to peer-to-peer file swapping, but Napster clones are currently on the front lines of the fight for public access.

The next horizon is a bill introduced by California Representative Howard Berman that purports to restrict peer-to-peer “piracy.” While Berman professes a fondness for peer-to-peer networking, the bill has all sorts of unintended consequences. As stated, it would effectively end peer-to-peer file swapping for legitimate and illegitimate means and give the RIAA and MPAA unprecedented power to peer into our private files. While I leave these details to the reader for the sake of space, I would hope you educate yourselves about this new threat to our creative freedoms. At the very least, the bill needs to be watered down to protect our privacy. In my view, the very notion of restricting technologies that enhance the way we share information is a fundamental mistake.

While I don’t condone copyright infringement, the very definition of the term is changing more drastically than at any time in modern history. What was part of public domain 10 years ago (works of those dead 30 years or more, copies of works for educational use, etc.) are no longer used legally. Left unchecked, this trend could do serious damage to our legitimate needs to share creative work. Without the ability to share creative work, our culture will be stymied. More likely, these activities will just continue underground, as the Polish culture flourished in darkened rooms during both the Nazi and Soviet occupations. Still, the fear of reprisal will leave underground culture to the courageous few, and those who dutifully comply with the ever more restrictive laws will see their intellectual freedoms wither away.

Still, there is hope. As reported on CNet on Friday, Duke University Law school just received a $1 million anonymous grant to “to fund advocacy and research aimed at curtailing the recent expansion of copyright laws such as the DMCA.” Wealthy intellectuals who understand what’s at stake in the fight for the freedom of ideas will follow the lead of this anonymous donor. Education will penetrate our society about this threat and the pendulum may just swing in the other direction.

Ultimately, what we need is a balance between intellectual- property rights and the rights of the public to use creative work. A proper balance gives people the incentive to create without fear of having their work ripped off; and it gives the consumers of that work the ability to use it, driving up demand for the work. The present trend will only dampen demand by forcing users to pay exorbitantly for work that is not worth the asking price. The RIAA cites piracy as the cause of slowing music sales. The true reasons are a slumping economy combined with the dire state of current music. The RIAA would never admit that if its members produced better stuff, CD sales would increase. And it certainly does not want to admit that, in this economy, music lovers want to sample music online before they purchase the CD. By restricting access to music online, they are only hurting its members’ sales. This results in reduced incentive to create music. Restoring a balance is not only good for consumers, it’s good for the industry as well.

What do you think about the current Intellectual Property debate? Send your thoughts to [email protected]

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and

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