By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
In 1998, it finally happened: After nearly five years of dominating headlines, magazine covers and airtime, the Internet got dull. The utopian promise that the Internet would spawn communities independent of race and physical attributes had started to seem numbingly naive; even triumphs over censorship rang hollow. (Who remembers the Communications Decency Act? Who cares?) No longer were quaint affinity groups awakening the world to the beauty of virtual communities. Refinements to Internet technology seemed narrowly focused on cryptography, online sales forms and cookies -- ways to safely and securely collect information about consumers and exchange money for products, be it in an online auction or at jcrew.com. Even the viruses were boring, since virtually all of them in the last few years would have died shortly after conception had people simply stopped using Microsoft Outlook.
Then along came Napster. Napster, in case you‘ve spent the last six months reading Harry Potter books and have not gone online, listened to the radio or walked down the street eavesdropping on teenagers, is the music-sharing technology dreamed up by a 19-year-old named Shawn Fanning. Fanning formed a company with a man named Hank Barry, a corporate lawyer, called it Napster, Inc., and installed it in the Silicon Valley haven of San Mateo. Barry et al. then invited venture capitalists to invest money while the business figured out how to turn a profit with a basically free service.
As a business, Napster hasn’t been particularly well managed. Copyright infringement was only one of the matters Barry -- arrogantly, I think -- failed to adequately address, but a big enough one that two former high-level Napster employees, Bill Bales and Adrian Scott, went ahead of the curve to create a ”copyright-friendly“ Napster called AppleSoup, on which users must pay a fee to ”unlock“ their downloads. More than anything, though, Barry wasn‘t great at not looking dumb. As Wall Street Journal reporter Lee Gomes recently noted, he’s been a clod about the hypocrisy of Napster‘s closed-source technology policy -- Barry defends Napster’s right to share other people‘s intellectual property and in the same breath denounces those who would like to know about his -- earning him the ire of the open-source software developers who might have been his allies. Most egregiously, Barry nearly stopped the band Offspring (whose members have been vocal Napster proponents) from selling a T-shirt bearing the Napster logo. That he backed off only means that someone wise a convinced him that such a move would be bad for the future bottom line.
As an Internet cultural phenomenon, however, Napster has been a dream. When I first logged into one of its servers and started routing around for tunes, I had the same rush of enthusiasm I had six years ago, when Mosaic made it possible to view Web pages in all their graphic glory. This is what it’s really for, I thought, as I lifted a mediocre-quality live version of Nina Simone singing on ”Ne Me Quitte Pas“ from somebody‘s hard drive, or watched another user grabbing Loreena McKennitt’s ”Ce He Mise Le Ulaingt“ from mine. This is what the Internet is meant to serve: the beautiful, self-organizing anarchy of a free society, the open exchange of information between like-minded individuals. And the freedom with which users exchange music on Napster implies the free flow of other kinds of information -- once applied to music, the Napster protocol can apply to anything. The National Rifle Association‘s bluster to the contrary, the most important safeguard against tyranny is not the right to bear arms, but the right to disseminate and access information (free speech sounds too narrow). Okay, more to the point: Rifling through the chaotic treasure trove of Napster users’ hard drives, I was overwhelmed with the sheer thrill of great music. So after a long hiatus, I started buying records again.
In fact, forget the Internet -- Napster has had a salutary effect on the whole culture. Since Fanning introduced the idea and Napster went to battle against the record companies, we have all learned in detail how artists get screwed by the music corporations. We have seen the moguls of the record companies of America for the soulless beings they really are, and had a chance to see Hilary Rosen, the inscrutable, by-the-book president of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), looking pathetic in the industry‘s defense. (It doesn’t matter how Napster affects profits, she has argued, or that record sales are up -- it‘s the principle.) Napster has revived the spirit of Jerry Garcia, caused Lars Ulrich of Metallica to turn on his fans, and given Courtney Love the chance to prove just how smart she is by ”doing the math“ on artists’ share of the industry dollar in a forceful, eloquent article on Salon. And it has made many people -- me, actually -- quite, quite happy.
Even Napster‘s legal problems were all right with me, because Napster is, just like the record companies who want to kill it, a corporation looking for profit, and there are many other ways to accomplish what Napster does without the company’s help. Although Fanning invented a novel application for peer-to-peer file sharing, he didn‘t invent the concept, and Napster can’t control it: Programmers have developed a slew of clones (see ‘em all at http:opennap.sourceforge.net) as well as copycat protocols that facilitate the sharing of a lot more than music.
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