The Digital Beat: Napster Limps Along

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Poor Napster. After the heat of its glory days, it's starting to look like an old sick horse fighting a trip to the soap factory. The past few weeks have been especially sad, as the company struggles to stay alive despite clear signs from the courts and the industry that its days of relevance are over. Napster was once the beacon of independence, now it's willing to sell out every last principal to survive.

The clearest sign came mid-July when it settled with its archest enemies: Metallica and Dr. Dre. Though financial terms were not disclosed, the company forked over more than just its wallet; it gave up its pride. After all, it wasn't that long ago that Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich and Napster founder Shawn Fanning were taunting each other on MTV. Napster made it a point to establish itself as the "it" kid of rock, while painting Metallica as, essentially, crotchety old farts. "Many bands who have approached us," said acting CEO Eileen Richardson early last year, "learned about Napster and how to leverage what we offer -- [they] understand the value of what we do."

At the time, Ulrich definitely seemed reactionary -- after all, how could the digital swapping frenzy be stopped? On one hand he's had the last laugh, but by forcing Napster to cave in and settle, Ulrich has achieved only a partial victory. So-called "new Napster" sites like the Dutch service FastTrack are already building up steam. And though Metallica says that they're now willing to make their songs available on a bootleg-free Napster, what's it going to do about the rest of the Net?

At the end of the war of words, however, Napster is the one to suffer most from its early self-appointed "revolutionary" status. Remember when Fanning organized protest rallies on Capitol Hill? Please. It's almost comical, in hindsight. Napster was never a political movement; it was just a poorly managed business. Fanning deserves credit for popularizing digital distribution, but he clearly dropped the ball. If the company had truly believed in its principles, it would have pursued a decentralized (read: non-commercial) distribution system like Gnutella or FreeNet.

Instead, Napster tried to have it both ways: It wanted to be the cool, rebel, Limp Bizkit ass-kissing punk program, and it also wanted to cash in big. Rather than doting around on MTV and Capitol Hill, Fanning and company should have spent some time with a swami and think about what it really wanted to be: a business or a real left-wing open source style network.

The result is that it's now barely breathing. Despite winning a recent appeal, Napster is still suffering the blow of being shut down on July 2nd. Until the company can thoroughly guarantee that it will not contribute to copyright violations, it's going to be limping at best. Even if/when it gets it act together, it will never recapture its original charm.

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