Last Friday, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered ran an alarming story about a pernicious piece of software they likened to “a kiosk in Central Park which would direct you to illegal drugs.” The rising fear of crippling hack attacks, combined with the rhetorical leftovers of the War on Drugs, drew listeners close to their radios for the details of this new software drug, named Napster. Napster is apparently so addictive that when the University of Southern California threatened to ban it from its residential network –used by students in their dorms – administrators faced a hastily organized army of students aux armes.
In case you’ve been living in a post-Y2K bunker, a few details: Napster is a very simple program that “reads” the MP3 music files on your hard disk, then publishes this list to a server somewhere out on the net. Everyone using Napster publishes to a common database, which you can then search to find any title you might be interested in. Napster displays a list of matches - nearly every popular song from the past 40 years can be found – then you click on an item, connect to another Napster user, and get the file directly from them. Napster is just a clearinghouse, a way-station on the road to tunes.
This database is in constant flux; it all depends upon who is using Napster right now. Songs come and go. So eternal vigilance is the price of a good collection of MP3s. (I have been very vigilant, snagging over 1 GB of MP3s in less than two weeks.) This has the recording industry up in arms; they’ve sued Napster for “promoting” copyright infringement. But it’s just a piece of software, and designed – ostensibly – to help artists promote their own work without a record contract. Yet NPR, normally a bastion of fairness in reporting, chose to characterize this as an essentially “illegal activity”, because it can be used to infringe copyright – just as any floppy drive or CD copier can. Why make such a big deal about something the recording industry already confronts on a daily basis? Put simply, it’s because Napster portends a complete revolution in the distribution of media.
The folks at Napster may not yet know it, but they’ve stumbled onto a general system for the location and distribution of media in a networked world. Although Napster is geared toward MP3 files, modifying a few lines of code could tune it so that it could be a master database for JPEG images, MIDI files, or even MPEG movies - like the ones distributed on DVDs. (There, I’ve just given the movie industry the heebee-jeebies that the recording industry is already feeling.) Just as, a decade ago, Tim Berners-Lee came up with a generic system for the distribution and location of documents – the World Wide Web – the geniuses at Napster have solved the problem for media objects. And while it’s always been possible to do a text search of the whole Web, try finding a movie clip: locked in their own worlds of encoding and formats, movies and songs are nearly opaque to search engines. We need Napster – or something very much like it. Napster won’t replace the Web, but will be an essential part of the 21st century net.
On a panel about the net at last month’s Sundance Film Festival, I described a hypothetical startup – PORNSTER.NET. PORNSTER would distribute a tool that allows folks to publish their amateur porn MPEGs (no copyright, no worries) the same way that Napster allows folks to publish their MP3s. Beyond driving the porn industry out of business – the anonymity and convenience alone should do that – PORNSTER creates a potlatch media culture, a stone soup where everyone’s best work becomes the hot download of the day.
That instantaneous and ubiquitous sharing of media is the essence of the Napster revolution, and why it won’t go away – despite every dollar the recording and entertainment industries bring to bear. Distribution has always been the choke-hold that the record companies have held over recording artists; now that’s just about as significant as the buggy-whip. Sun co-founder John Gilmour once said that the net regards censorship as an error and routes around it; now we know that copyright is a form of censorship. The children-of-Napster are about to change the world of media. Forever.