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Nothing for free

The Internet is a controversial place – so free and yet so inherently proprietary. The technology progressed faster than the legalese it seems, but the lawyers are catching up.

The Internet is a controversial place – so free and yet so inherently proprietary. The technology progressed faster than the legalese it seems, but the lawyers are catching up.

All the debates over Napster – does it help artists or hurt the music industry – are moot. The corporations who feel they were hurt by Napsters’ MP3 file sharing program have come to collect their due.

Napster has been taking a nap since July, when a U.S. District Court Judge issued a preliminary injunction against the company until the whole schlamozzle can be settled. Most major record labels, including AOL Time Warner, EMI, BMG, Universal Music and Sony Music, are suing Napster for lost revenues, with the first suits dating back to December of 1999.

Now, even as Napster plots its return to the Internet as a membership/pay per song service, the aforementioned record companies are asking for a summary judgment against Napster – an umbrella ruling that would acknowledge Napster’s complicity in the illegal trade of copyrighted music and make it easier for the record companies to collect damages.

Napster lawyers opposed the request and argued for a full trial that would likely drag on for months and years, becoming more irrelevant by the day as newer and more insidious file sharing programs take over the position Napster once held. By the time the suits come to court, individually or as a class action, Napster may have already ceased to exist. As the saying goes, you can’t get blood from a stone.

A summary judgment would also set a precedent that could be used against other file sharing services, thereby shutting down the free trading of copyrighted materials, such as music and software, in the U.S. and around the world. People could still send files through e-mail, but these would be open to tracking, and the sender could find himself indicted under what would for all intents serve as a new law.

That stash of MP3s on your hard drive could be as incriminating as any of the other stashes you might have around your house.

While it will likely be a week or two before the judge decides whether to proceed with the trial or issue a summary judgment, her decision could ultimately affect the whole file-sharing world.

And that changes everything.

In the computer world, people have always been reluctant to buy software. It’s expensive and frequently requires upgrades.

And besides, when given the choice between full price and a discounted pirated version, most people will naturally go with the pirated software – by and large it’s viewed as a victimless crime.

According to a 1999 study by the Business Software Alliance, a global watchdog for the software industry, an average of 25 per cent of software in the U.S. is pirated. In Texas alone, it’s estimated that the software industry lost $570 million to piracy, plus about 7,000 jobs. California, the home of Silicon Valley, leads the nation with $1.8 billion in retail sales losses, and approximately 13,900 jobs.

A Gartner Inc. survey of 4,000 Internet users found that only 6 per cent of respondents had purchased digital music online – despite the fact that over a quarter of those polled do store and listen to MP3s on their computers.

Yet the big five – the music companies listed above – are pushing ahead with their plans to distribute their music online through various pay systems and incentives. A couple of music distribution services have stepped forward to offer a Napster-like music shopping and sharing experience but for a fee.

They are MusicNet ( www.musicnet.com ) and PressPlay ( www.pressplay.com) .

MusicNet, which lists Napster as a partner, is offering a limited public preview, and music selections from BMG, EMI, Time Warner, and Zomba labels.

PressPlay is still working out licensing agreements with record companies, but has already signed EMI, Sony Music, and Universal. Both sites are still in development, but will likely wait until after the court rulings to go live. Why? Because if the court somehow vindicates Napster – and in doing so, the whole file sharing industry – then these legitimate pay-per-listen sites are going to have fewer visitors than Ellesmere Island.

That’s a huge "if" – most likely the record companies will succeed in setting a precedent. In that case, music lovers who are used to getting it for free will have to think long and hard about coughing up for songs and albums.

There will always be a trade in music files, but whether it’s an illegal trade or just a frowned upon one is still up in the air – and if it’s illegal, users will have to decide whether or not they want to be a part of it.

That said, there is still a lot of free software out there that will stay free – at least until the developers can figure out a way to make some money out of the deal.

The best shareware and freeware site these days is SimTel at www.SimTel.com – Cnet at www.downloads.com has almost everything SimTel has, but it’s a little harder to locate amongst all the other software being offered.




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