NAPSTER.COM AND THE DEATH OF THE MUSIC INDUSTRY
I expect most of you are aware that the Recording Industry
Association of America has been fighting a desperate struggle
against technologies that would end its century-long enslavement
and exploitation of musicians. One of these developments is
something called Napster.com, a system that indexes and makes
available digital music files that are stored on the private hard
disks of its subscribers.
About a month ago, the New York Times asked me to write an
editorial about Napster and the general state of copyright in the
world of music. I jumped at the chance and only after nine drafts
and a lot of nocturnal hair-tearing did I realize how impossible
it would be to both describe the situation in sufficient detail and
comment on it in no more than 700 words. I eventually gave up,
but I did write something that I would like to pass on to you, in
the interest of stimulating your thoughts on the subject.
(If it resonates, feel free to pass it further on.)
Of course, things have been moving very rapidly. In the time
since I wrote this piece, something called Gnutella has emerged.
Gnutella is a distributed indexing system for any kind of on-line
content. The fact that it has no central server nor identifiable
individual in charge means that it can't be shut down or sued.
Furthermore, I heard today of another development called Freenet.
Freenet, the work of a 23 year old Irish copyright anarchist named
Ian Clarke, is a system that makes it possible to exchange any
copyrighted material anonymously. Freenet would also make
the storage location(s) of the material impossible to locate, thus
frustrating such efforts as Metallica's current crack-down on
Napster subscribers who have stored their songs.
(You gotta love Metallica. There were a pain in the ass to their
parents. Now they're going to be a pain in the ass to their kids.)
There's plenty of action in this zone, and since one of my current
missions in life is to kill the music business and midwife the birth
of the musician business and audience business, I'm keeping
In any event, here's what I had to say about it a month ago:
NAPSTER'S ENORMOUS MUSIC ROOM
An Op-Ed Piece for the New York Times
By John Perry Barlow
Last fall, an obscure 19 year old student named Shawn Fanning
quietly inflicted the wound that I believe will eventually kill the
music business as we know it. He set up a Web site called
Of course, the recording industry, like other traditional publication
media, was already suffering a likely terminal illness. Because of
the Internet, almost any informational product can be infinitely
reproduced and instantaneously distributed all over the planet
without cost. This obsoletes the material containers previously
necessary for information transport as well as most of the
industries that manufactured them. The biggest remaining
obstacle to this free flow of digital liquid is legal, not practical.
But so far this impediment - copyright law - has been sufficient
to make most of the 20th Century's best musical creations and
performances very hard to find online. Nearly all of this material
has been commercially released and is therefore in the white-
knuckled grip of the companies that recorded it. Commercial
MP3 sites are too visible to risk legal assault by copyright patrols
from the RIAA (or Recording Industry Association of America.),
so they traffic mostly in recent or insignificant works.
But Fanning realized there is a lot more digitized music in Cyber-
space than one might think. This is because millions of ordinary
listeners have converted portions of their purchased music
collections into the MP3 format and copied them onto their hard
drives. He further realized that many of these personal hard disks
are continuously connected to the Internet, generally because their
owners, mostly students, hold accounts on academic networks.
Fanning also knew that people have an old and deep impulse to
share music with one another, so, in essence, he designed an
immense and growing virtual space, Napster.com, where they
could do so. Napster creates a vast community of folks who
can play music directly from one another's PC's, rather as they
might play one of their roommate's CD's on the stereo in their
But of course, in this environment, what can be played can also
be copied. When I reach through Napster to the hard disk of
some kid in Ohio and grab his copy of, say, Cassidy by the
Grateful Dead, I can also place it on my hard disk as I listen to it.
It is this characteristic of Napster that so haunts the RIAA.
They believe that making this copy is as clear a case of theft
as if I'd shop-lifted a CD from Walmart..
But what is being "stolen?" And from whom? Speaking as the
fellow who co-wrote Cassidy, I don't believe that the kid in Ohio
is injuring my economic interests by sharing it with others.
Deadheads have been sharing our songs with each other for
decades and it's done nothing but increase the demand for
Of course, the RIAA takes a very different view and has lately
been laboring by means, both legal and technical, to eliminate
fair use, requiring payment to be made every time someone
hears the music they claim to own. They regard Napster to be
a global thief's bazaar.
But what can they do about it? Nothing, I'd say. Napster is legally
safe from them because no copyrighted material is actually stored
there. Nor is there any practical way to prosecute the burgeoning
multitudes who have already made over 380, 000 musical pieces
Appeals based on moral principles will avail them little.
Cyberspace is and always has been a "gift economy" where
sharing is considered a virtue, not a crime. The music industry
is generally despised by both music-lovers and musicians, to
whom they've been returning about five percent of the retail
value of their works.
Further, most musicians agree with Public Enemy rapster
Chuck D, who recently said that the recording industry's legal
assertion that they own the music they distribute is as senseless
as would be a claim by Federal Express that they should own
the contents of the packages they ship.
Also, from an economic standpoint, many musicians have
discovered, as the Grateful Dead did, that the best way to
make money from music is to give it away. While scarcity
may increase the value of physical goods, such as CD's, the
opposite applies to information. In a dematerialized
information economy, there is an equally strong relationship
between familiarity and value. If your work is good, allowing
what you've done to self-replicate freely increases demand for
what you haven't done yet, whether by live performances or
by charging online for the download of new work.
For these, and far more reasons than I can state here, I'm
convinced that the traditional music business is finished.
Napster and other environments like it will polish off the
likes of BMG and Tower Records within five years.
Personally, I can't say I'll miss it. For over a century, it has
exploited both musicians and audiences. By its proprietary
practices and crass insistence on mass appeal, it has desertified
the ecology of auditory epiphany, impoverished genius,
fattened lawyers, turned plastic into gold, and offered gilded
plastic in return.
Music expresses the soul of a society. It is perhaps the most
singularly human activity of our peculiar species, since, unlike
the rest of our major endeavors, it doesn't support our physical
survival. But the 20th Century music business has transformed
the deepest currents of our culture into mere currency.
To be fair, I will confess that it had its purposes and time.
Without the record industry, I would never have heard The
Rolling Stones, Stockhausen, Handel, Billy Holiday, Bob Dylan,
Robert Johnson, Ravi Shankar, or Balinese Monkey Chants.
Nor, more importantly, would they have been able to hear -
and thus build upon - each other.
I also recognize that some percentage of those who work in it
appear to be human beings. As a former cattle rancher, I feel a
pang of compassion at their economic demise. But history is
littered with such casualties. The people who worked in them
found other jobs.
The graceful industries go down gently when they've outlived
their utility, but doesn't appear that this one is going to. They
appear prepared to bury with themselves an entire epoch of
music under a thick crust of copyright law, leaving a century-
sized hole in the history of music.
We can't allow this to happen. If it does, it will cause the still-birth
of what is presently gestating on Napster.com: the musician
business. (And even, with luck, something one might call the
In Napster's enormous room, music will arise in spontaneous and
global abundance in the space between creators and listeners so
interactively that it will be hard to tell which is which. No
longer will we mistake music for a noun, as its containers have
tempted us to do for a century. We will realize once more that
music is a verb, a relationship, a constantly evolving life form.
But you can't own verbs, nor relationships, nor divine gifts.
Whatever the current legalities, I personally find defining "my"
songs to be a form of property to be as philosophically audacious
and as impractical as would be a claim that I own "my" daughters,
another blessing that just happened to pass into the world
through me. . .
As with my daughters, I want to exercise some control over what
happens to the songs for which I was the mere conduit. I don't
want them to be altered, abused, exploited, or used by others for
their own commercial purposes. Developing the proper legal and
ethical instruments to assure me that ability will be tricky. But
more than control, I want my songs, like my daughters, to be free
to roam the world and be loved by as many as can appreciate their
Whatever models evolve to protect the creation of music, I am not
concerned that we will fail to economically support its makers
after we quit calling it property. For some reason, humans
absolutely require music, and they were providing for the
material needs of musicians for tens of thousands of years before
copyright law, just as they will do so for tens of thousands of
years after this brief and anomalous period has been forgotten.
The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long
plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men
die like dogs. There's also a negative side.
-- Hunter S. Thompson
"Send some token I know not of
clothed in legends whispered low of
Split me into many men
and we'll retrieve it how we can"
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