Those who have faithfully followed the 21st-century battle that is Napster vs. the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) now know one critical fact. Napster is going mainstream and blending in, vanilla-like, with corporate America.
One might wonder what happened to Napster’s revolutionary spirit. Its renegade founder. Its cutting-edge concept. But whether you are wondering about those things or not, the plain truth is that Napster will soon go legit by licensing music from a new entity called MusicNet, which is owned by three recording industry leaders: EMI Group, BMG and Warner Music.
What can we learn from this outcome?
First, by closing the doors on Napster’s defiant path, the American judicial system has sent a powerful message that e-commerce must operate within existing laws, specifically copyright laws.
Second, e-commerce accomplishes nothing by damaging or eliminating an existing, successful industry, such as the record company business. Traditional businesses and new entities have to find a way to co-exist and compete within the confines of the free-enterprise system.
But while the massive lawsuits raged against Napster, few kept a close eye on the developments of Aimster, a virtual clone of Napster that is built on similar technology. Aimster has everything to lose or gain when it comes to the ultimate fate of its predecessor.
So, with Napster approaching agreement and/or compromise with the RIAA and record companies, should Aimster assume that traditional commerce reigns supreme, at the expense of upstarts?
Or should Aimster assume that new technology forced the hand of big business, compelling the recording industry to step down from its comfortable pedestal and make a peace treaty with the newcomers?
The truth lies somewhere in between those two extremes. Even though the industry stalwarts and the upstarts both had strong weapons to use, the result looks like a compromise — and it is not the first time such a compromise has been brokered.
We’ve become so accustomed to dividing the world into two camps — New Economy and Old Economy — that we often forget that the civil wars between business past and business future do often find a new middle ground.
Some alterations in the way we do business have been easily assimilated. On the most basic level, companies have for years reduced their costs by relying more and more on electronics and computers.
And when you think about it, how can anyone expect to maintain the status quo of transactional commerce, when technology has leapfrogged past traditional business?
Now, just when the record industry is starting to feel secure about the demise of free music file-sharing on Napster, Aimster’s emergence is an ominous reminder that file-sharing technology is here to stay. Neutralizing one perceived threat does not mean the underlying problem has been solved.
The battle lines are again being drawn. Aimster’s critics are crying foul, claiming the company is dj vu all over again — and in the worst way. Supporters argue that Aimster is not breaking any laws by enabling the sharing of files. Moreover, Aimster argues that to monitor users’ file swaps would be an invasion of the users’ privacy, since its service includes encrypted transmissions.
The investment community is lining up within earshot of Aimster, if not exactly behind it, carefully gauging the economic potential — and liability — of the service.
Business as Usual?
The Napster saga proved that progress often comes with a price tag for all sides to pay. To survive, the recording industry has had to find a way to incorporate file-sharing technology into its all-too-comfortable universe. And Napster has had to find a way to play by the rules. MusicNet is a step in that direction.
From now on, the Napsters and Aimsters of the world (and there are likely to be many more) should understand that they are obligated to conduct themselves responsibly and with due respect to traditional business. File-sharing enablers are not likely to circumvent — or fly beneath the radar screen of — copyright laws that date back to the 18th century, nor should they try.
What we’re seeing is a new playing field. The teams need to learn how to play fair and check their moral posturing before things race out of control again.
Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.