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The Internet and the free trade of information after Napster

A response to Taking Sides – Clashing Views in Mass Media and Society – Issue 15

This chapter’s debate is over the internet as a free trade of information (specifically via Napster).  Writing for the affirmative, Andrew Sullivan argues that file trading over the net is not stealing and might just make communism possible.  The lawyers for the recording industry, on the other had, argue that those who own the rights to the files traded need protection and deserve damages.

Sullivan is almost entirely optimistic about the ability of the net to act as a public space open to everyone.  Even the few sites which required payment are now becoming free, and people can copy the pay site’s content and send it outside anyway.  This, for him is a way to get around Marx’s dislike of the way capitalism values people only by monetary worth.  It also abolishes property in some ways, which Sullivan sees as helping to eliminate greed and profit motive in human interaction.  Soon musicians, journalists and others will remember their love for their professions and not mind going without a paycheck.

The recording industry lawyers, however, are not so cheery.  They point out that Napster facilitates music copying without paying copyright holders, that sales in Napster-saturated markets are down, and that Napster does so knowingly and at an enormous scale.  They argue that Napster was designed for the sole purpose of piracy and that it is their current business model as well.  Although Napster has yet to make any revenues, the lawyers argue they have gotten a financial benefit through piracy via venture capital, stock price and audience acquisition.

Sullivan, I think, has missed the point almost entirely.  I could go on for pages (and will in my paper), but basically his notion that the web is divorced from money is ridiculous.  Newspapers don’t charge because they make money off advertising-so they, along with the rest of the net, try to track you, market to you, sell data about you, etc., and if they don’t they fold.  Web traffic is going increasingly to those with money and power.  Also, so long as food and rent cost money, no writer or musician will forgo paychecks.  Sullivan seems to think you can live off MP3s alone.  My paper is about the internet’s function as a public space, it has more limitations than he recognizes-for example, not everyone can afford a computer or a net connection, which leaves a lot of people out of the public debate.

The Napster lawyers are also full of crap in a lot of ways.  These two essays really are at opposite ends of the spectrum-Sullivan is a naïve Marxist and the lawyers are cunning corporate-capitalists.  Note that in their public statements and in much of the press coverage, the recording industry represented this as a case of taking money from Metallica or the Rolling Stones or whoever, but in the brief copyright ownership is the key concept.  Most musicians get pennies for each CD sold, and some get nothing-with giant corporations, who control the entire distribution network, fixing prices at $17 each.  Napster, in fact, does little to nothing to hurt the average musician, but it’s possible (the lawyers’ proof is not rock solid) it hurts the corporate music oligarchy.  So it hurts non-human entities which create nothing but take all the wealth by dominating and controlling the market-excuse me if I’m not crying.  When the lawyers mention that Napster intends to make CD stores and the RIAA obsolete, it becomes pretty clear-since when has it been illegal to make an outdated system obsolete through technological innovation?

If the court is really interested in serving the public interest, it would pursue antitrust action against the RIAA and rewrite the copyright laws.  It is becoming harder and harder for a person who actually creates something, whether it’s an album, photograph, novel or article, to retain ownership to it.  Corporations, via concentration of ownership and agreements, are now demanding perpetual copyright ownership even from freelance workers who are traditionally protected.  Copyright law was intended to encourage creative and inventive people by giving them ownership of their work, but that rarely happens anymore.