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Editor's Note: Why Are We Defending Napster?

Are We So Selfish as to Lose Our Principles?

July 27, 2000

Why are we in the Open Source community so passionate about defending Napster against the Recording Industry Association of America? Let's see: it's not because Napster is an Open Source company. Quite the opposite: the owners of Napster have discouraged Open Source versions of the Napster software and have sent threatening notes to those who would try and create Open Source alternatives to Napster like OpenNAP. (The whole sordid tale is outlined splendidly in--of all places--the Wall Street Journal.)

Check out what Rob Malda wrote on Slashdot: "I've decided that I won't be buying any RIAA CDs for awhile personally [I've already cancelled a couple of orders, and I buy a ton of CDs], but decide for yourself. Should peer-to-peer file sharing be legal or not, on the Internet? Should companies like Google and Yahoo be held legally responsible for the content that they index? Meanwhile, the OpenNAP servers and Gnutella are proving that the genie is out of the bottle, and while this lawsuit may set a huge legal precedent, it won't help the RIAA in the real world. It should really work with Napster, since there is already significant market share and potential for revenue. Gnutella and its kin won't have any centralized point." Similarly, in Salon, Scott Rosenberg compares the anti-Napster forces to those advocates of Prohibition: "For all sorts of reasons, some good ones and some rationalizations, people don't feel that they're doing anything wrong when they trade music files with Napster. Maybe they're already spending hundreds of dollars a year on overpriced CDs. Maybe they're sick of the music industry's habit of packaging one hit with a bunch of dud tracks. Maybe they just want to check out music before buying it in ways that the current dismal radio-and-MTV universe simply don't allow."

I don't buy it.

Let's face it: Napster is nothing more than a commercialized attempt to leech off the music industry, to provide the fruits of someone else's labor while skimming a little off the top. Napster is a well-financed commercial enterprise that exists for no other reason but to make money off of peer-to-peer file sharing. (Hummer Windblad--not exactly the socialists of the venture-capital world--now effectively control Napster. The original Napster and his father are now reduced to being minority owners in the company they launched.) Napster attempts to supercede the rights of artists by providing the means to illegally trade copyrighted materials.

In my mind, this goes directly against the spirit of Open Source, which is why the whole-hearted support of Napster in the Open Source community boggles my mind. One purpose behind Open Source is to give power to users through the inclusion of source code; another purpose is to encourage people to shift from proprietary code to Open Source code. But the notion of enriching oneself at the expense of those creating Open Source code--while contributing nothing to Open Source in the process--is anathema to those truly serious about Open Source. And certainly no one tries to hide behind Open Source while simultaneously advocating massive software piracy.

Still, the community's reaction to Napster points out a rather ugly undercurrent in the Open Source world: there are those who flock to Open Source because the software is free--or, rather, the creators ask for a contribution rather than demanding one. Linux is great because it's free. Apache is great because it's free. Send a few bucks to Slackware because I use Slackware Linux on a daily basis? Forget it--the software is free! (Never mind the fact that people like Patrick Volkerding need to eat and pay the mortgage like everyone else.) In that vein, I am sick and tired of folks who whine about paying $15 for a music CD. Overpriced? Hardly. There's no better bargain in the world today than recorded music: I can tell you that I've received way more than $15 of enjoyment from my favorite CDs, and I don't begrudge the likes of Elvis Costello and Jonathan Richman the means to make a living from their artistry.

In the end, the selfish attitudes shown by Napster advocates will only come back to haunt them. I think that there is great potential with the whole notion of peer-to-peer file sharing on a massive basis, and I do see tools like Napster fulfilling a vital need. But I just can't see it to condone artistic piracy on a massive basis, and for that reason the court decision against Napster doesn't sadden me in the least.

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