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The Digital Beat: Napster Not a Vital Cause

April 4, 2001 12:00 AM ET

"Napster is under fire! The recording industry won't stop until they've shut down file sharing. We're not going to let them. You can make a difference. Join the Napster Action Network now!"

This was the battle cry that appeared in pop up windows when surfers booted up Napster recently. With Napster's newfangled filtering system drawing fire, the company decided to turn over its future, in part at least, to the power of the people. Don't be fooled. It's a last-ditch effort that shows just how threatened Napster has become. It also shows how the fight over digital downloads has been disingenuously made political when really it's just business.

Napster has been lamely playing the Cause card since its inception. Shortly after the service launched, schools around the country became hotspots for digital warfare. The State University of New York at Albany, Oregon State University and Indiana University all restricted access to the Napster site after complaints of slow Net access. IU alone blamed Napster for taking up to fifty percent of bandwidth space. Of course, students were quick to construe the Napster ban as some kind of censorship. However, the universities had every right to govern their own computer networks, especially when something is causing them to crash. Still, this didn't stop many from hoisting the Napster pirate flag.

Chad Paulson, a nineteen-year-old IU sophomore, led an online campaign called "Save Napster," which he hoped would generate a petition to fight the burgeoning shutdowns. At Stanford, one student created a Web page instructing students how to access the Napster site by circumventing their college computer systems. Paulson, like many Napster groupies, asserts that the university is screwing the rights of students who want to share legal MP3 files. "I'm a big fan of indie music," he said, "on Napster I can find the kind of stuff that's usually on small labels like Kill Rock Stars or Sub Pop." As if.

These days, Save Napster is gone. And only the most deluded users would actually claim that they use Napster strictly for kosher downloads. In reality, Napster was always about the bootlegs, it will always be about the bootlegs, and, frankly, so will any other peer-to-peer system. To suggest that P2Ps are designed for anything else is a lie.

In this light, Napster's attempt to create some kind of giddy political action committee is just plain crass and dumb. This isn't about abortion or Vietnam; this is about bootlegs. Why make the fight any more embarrassing than it already is? Even the most hardcore Napster junkie should know where to the draw the line between a novelty and a so-called "revolution." If the so-called executives at Napster had spent more time coming up with a way to protect artist copyrights, then they would have given supporters something to cheer about. Instead, they capitalized on the hype without showing any real viability as a commercial service. If anything, fans should be protesting that.

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