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Napster rebirth unlikely

RIAA’s obstinacy is its Achilles’ heel.

I have said repeatedly in this space that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is doing itself a disservice by following through with its Napster injunction. Napster is a prime example of the dominant online marketing model–communities of users who can exchange favorites and offer peer reviews. To forsake them is tantamount to spitting on the labels’ biggest client base. Not that the RIAA should let free downloads continue unfettered, but it should give Napster and its partner Bertelsmann AG a chance to turn the service into one that requires accountability.

In this context, I’m gratified to note that a prominent e-music analyst agrees with me. In a story on our site today, Forrester Research music industry analyst Eric Scheirer recommends that the RIAA leave Napster alone or face the undue complexity of dealing with Gnutella and others that have roughly the same effect on CD sales as Napster but are much more difficult to control.

Because Napster is a centralized system, the RIAA could actually go after it and its users. But Gnutella, which is a true peer-to-peer network, is more ethereal and nearly impossible to track down. Sending users away from Napster only sends them to Gnutella, and then they’re lost to any influence by the labels, or so Scheirer argues.

And, as another story on our site details, the judge is willing to let the RIAA define the terms of the injunction, though mediators will be involved. The way things are heading, that will mean gutting Napster services and forcing its users to Gnutella and a resurrected Scour service.

A saner course would be for the RIAA to grant Napster a license to distribute music until it gets its act together on the whole accountability thing. In exchange, the RIAA would receive tons of data on the users, enabling labels to market CDs and DVDs directly to them. This would be a huge gesture of goodwill to the users. And it would also allow the RIAA to monitor online music downloads. Once it unleashes Napster’s users on Gnutella, it won’t have a clue how widespread the “problem” is, nor will it be able to benefit from the phenomenon.

James Mathewson is editorial director of and ComputerUser magazine.

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