Sunday, February 18, 2001

Sharing Good, Napster Bad

Sharing is good. That’s what they teach in kindergarten. Now the music industry wants you to un-learn it.

Why? One little word: Napster.

If Napster -- the free music sharing concept -- in its current form disappears, it’ll be a shame. No, it’ll be murder. The music industry wants to kill it, and the courts may just help them accomplish that deed.

A year ago, I didn’t even know what Napster was. But after several people told me how great it was, I decided to download the software and give the service a try. It took me exactly one experience to reason that this was not only a great piece of software, but that it had the potential to change the music business.

Unfortunately, the music business doesn’t feel the need to change. After all, it is bringing in billions in revenue every year, profits are awfully hefty, and this kid Shawn Fanning (The Father Of Napster at age 19) could bring down the whole industry. At least that’s their argument.

That’s the same argument the movie studios made when VCRs first came on the market. "If someone has one of these machines and some blank tape, they can record movies right off of TV and then have a copy to watch or give to a friend whenever they want, and then they’ll have no reason to go to the movie theaters ever again, and we’ll go bankrupt and won’t have any money to entice naive young starlets and to line the pockets of politicians with! Someone must stop this Sony Satan before videotape ruins us!"

As you know, the movie business was forced to shut down because you own a VCR, even if you still don’t know how to program it to record a movie from HBO.

Far from it. The movie business is thriving at unprecedented levels, partly because it embraced the concept of home video use and figured out a way to make it work to the industry’s advantage.

When I worked in rock radio, we used to play an album all the way through every night at midnight – usually an older one, but occasionally it’d be something brand new that hadn’t even hit the stores yet. The record companies knew we were doing it and that listeners were rolling tape and I never heard them squawk about the practice. They knew they were getting free promotion for their product.

Free promotion is a proven sales tool. Look at AOL, which gives away twelve gazillion versions of their software to entice people to sign up for their service.

Record companies should view Napster the same way. Embrace it, don’t crush it! Use it as a way to tease an upcoming release by making just a clip of a new song available. Promote new bands with Nap-Freebies to turn fans on. Urge rappers to download bits and pieces in a Nap-Sample section. Put an unsigned band’s songs out into Napsterland, get distribution directly to the consumers, and gauge interest.

The labels have called Napster users "pirates." But Napster users are not pirates, despite an eery echo from the past. Check this headline from Billboard Magazine in 1970: the Recording Industry Association of America is "Mounting Total War Against Tape Pirating of Prerecorded Music." Whew! Good thing that worked, huh?

I can buy a CD, listen to it, and then lend or give it to you without breaking the law, can’t I? Are you a scofflaw if you make a cassette copy of that CD? Remember, these downloads are purely for personal use. Thus, they should be covered by the Fair Use Doctrine. They are not pirates.

If someone is caught selling an unauthorized CD full of music, then sure, stop them. But even the notion of selling music for a profit raises questions. Can I sell a legally-purchased CD at a yard sale and keep the cash? If I have a valuable old record, can I make a profit by selling it to a collector? Why is it okay on EBay, but evil on Napster?

The music industry isn’t really losing as much money from Napster use as it thinks it is. Studies show that the kids who download free music via Napster are also the ones who spend the most on music at the retail level.

Most of what gets downloaded is music the end user has no intention of purchasing anyway. In some cases, it’s something rare, old, or out of print. Or maybe it’s the recording of Britney Spears cursing backstage in Rio de Janiero. Or maybe it’s me, downloading a song for something I’m going to do on my show. I go to Napster, download it, and then use it on the air. If Napster didn’t exist, I would easily make do without. The music labels wouldn’t have gotten a penny to begin with, so they shouldn’t complain when they don’t get one in the end!

There are millions of files downloaded from the internet every day. What’s the difference if I download the text of a newspaper article and forward it to several friends? Or better yet, did I break the law by downloading the decision by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court Of Appeals in the Napster case for free?

I’m a content provider myself, and I have no objection to you or anyone else making a copy of this column -– or anything else on HarrisOnline.com -– and giving it to whoever you like (as long as you include the copyright notice and don’t sell it). I’d consider that flattery and free promotion, which is how the music business should look upon Mr. Fanning’s Fantasy.

When I was a kid, if I wanted a copy of a song I liked, I’d have to tape it off the radio. Since this was before stereo components were widely available, I had to take my portable tape recorder into the living room where my parents had a console hi-fi unit, turn the radio to my favorite top-40 station, put the microphone in front of the hi-fi speaker, and start taping, hoping to catch a song I liked on tape.

Since that microphone was dangling out there, I would also have to get everyone else in the family to leave the room and/or be quiet. "Hey, Mom, I’m taping in here!" was a common complaint in our house, usually preceded by Mom insisting that she answer the ringing phone and conduct a conversation with her sister in a normal, civilized tone. I’m sure I captured many of those phone calls on tape, in the background of my favorite Beatles and Stones songs.

You no doubt remember this classic duet:
Paul McCartney: "Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes..."
Mom: "I don't know what I'm going to do if he keeps acting like this."

Sure, I could have gone to the store and bought the record, but that would have meant two things: 1) spending money I didn’t have to begin with; and 2) increasing family harmony, which was against the Rules Of Being A Kid.

Was I hurting the capitalist music establishment? Of course not. Neither is a kid today, sitting in front of his computer, downloading a song off of Napster.

Technology may have made it easier, but the concept is the same -- except he’s not getting Mom on tape: "Shawn Fanning, you stop uploading my phone conversations to your friends!"