Cybernaut 

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.

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.

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