The Social Life of Information John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid

Other writings by the authors of The Social Life of Information:

After All the Shouting

San José Mercury
2000 July 24

About the authors


After All the Shouting,
a Napster Settlement Seems Likely

Paul Duguid

[This is the draft text of an article on Napster that Paul wrote for the San José Mercury. It appeared with accompanying arguments by the CEO of Napster and the CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America on July 24th, 2000]

Turning the world upside down

Does technology turn the world upside down? Certainly, you could get that feeling from the recent Napster hearings in the Senate. There was leather bound Lars Ulrich of Metallica, looking pretty unsenatorial and counter-cultural. And there was dapper Hank Barry of Napster, looking like the archetypal corporate "suit." Yet it was Ulrich who sang the praises of law, the establishment, and private property, while Barry fronted for the legion of music pirates Napster has created. The difference, though, was probably only superficial. If Metallica was curiously pitching for music industry executives, who have long lived off the sweat of musicians' brows, Napster, while claimed by fans to be the Robin Hood of the industry, is actually hoping to do much the same. It's hard to believe either is on the side of the angels.

It's Napster, though, that appears to be on the side of technological progress. The company's 19-year-old founder brilliantly saw how to make the Web a record library where anyone with Net access gets a virtual library card for free. And, given the power of digital technology to make perfect copies, in this library what you check out doesn't have to be returned. (Napster says it expects users to buy CDs of the music they like, but they also like to claim they have no idea of—or responsibility for—what people do with their software.)

So in the short run, Napster looks like the people's champion. But what are its long-term effects likely to be? Most musicians may hate the music industry, but no one believes artists will therefore happily pass out their best work for free. Few will go as far as the poet Wordsworth, who kept his greatest work locked up for 50 years to get the most benefit from 19th-century copyright law. Most musicians, having less patience, will look for whoever will give them best protection from Napster.

And that's likely to be the same industry bosses that Napster claimed to be saving us all from. With mighty profits from generally unscrupulous contracts, industry moguls had little reason to innovate. But in response to Napster, they will. And they'll show how the Net doesn't so much turn things upside down as polarize. In one corner, Napster now makes everything free. In the other, the music bosses will try to bottle marketable music more tightly than ever. Not with the old, inadequate physical "bottles"—the vinyl disc, the magnetic tape, or the CD. They'll fight bytes with bytes, using digital technology to make a virtual jukebox with coin slots wired to their pockets. They'll want cash to download a new track, more cash to play it again, and yet more cash if you want to lend or copy it. And they'll probably ping you continuously for cash just to stop it disappearing from your library. (Already a British company has released a track called "7-Days" that, despite the name, generously lasts 14 days before it dissolves spontaneously.) And they'll want more cash than you could imagine to make an insecure MP3 file of it.

Yet, between these gloomy digital extremes of unrealistic freedom and absurd and intrusive control, there will probably be a more reasonable compromise. Remember, in the 19th century, America refused to honor international copyright law. Most publishers and newspaper editors stole whatever they could. And an eager public didn't see any reason to add to the income of wealthy foreigners, much as Napster fans today don't feel much obligation to contribute to Sir Paul McCartney's bank account. (In both eras, poor artists have generally been forgotten.) But when publishers and editors saw that this stance threatened their own interests as work they had paid for was pirated too, they changed their mind and signed on to copyright.

That change of mind took over half a century. Things happen faster on the Net. Already it's said that Napster has undermined its outlaw credibility by threatening the band Offspring for distributing Napster t-shirts royalty-free. There's also talk that the company's dubious legal status is making problems in its search for advertising and capital. And it's now eager to use its software to distribute movies—and there's an industry which certainly isn't going to leave its copyrights unprotected. So it probably won't be long before Napster does a deal with Metallica's paymasters. This may not be the best thing for Metallica. And it probably won't be the best thing for the public. (It will certainly outrage Napster fans who will discover that those really were suits and not Robin Hoods in disguise testifying before the Senate.) But it may be a better (and more likely) outcome than those technology-turned-the-world-upside-down scenarios that get optimists and pessimists alike into such a state.

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