Napster’s Candle in the Dark

There’s something slightly disappointing about Shawn Fanning’s decision to go legit with Napster, but it’s not exactly the same as David making nice with Goliath or Luke Skywalker going over to the Dark Side.

Napster CEO Fanning — who is not yet old enough to buy a beer in most parts of the U.S. — has managed to turn the music industry inside out with his upstart file-sharing company. Some say he has revolutionized the world of computing.

It may be too soon to tell whether Fanning will make the list of the third millennium’s most influential people, but it’s clear that he is a mighty force to be reckoned with today.

Although those Napster fans who are bent on anarchy will never forgive him for “selling out” by cutting a deal with media giant Bertelsmann AG, my guess is that most of Fanning’s army of supporters (Napster says it has around 38 million registered users) will remain loyal. They may feel a slight twinge of regret that the music wars are dying down, but it will be a fleeting sensation. What most of them are really passionate about is downloading their favorite tunes.

Music Wars

If you’ve been vacationing on Pluto for the past year, the background to this story is that Fanning dropped out of college to devote all of his time to writing code for the computer technology that allows users to access each other’s hard drives and download files. Then he established Napster, a company that connects the users through centralized servers and supplies a search mechanism.

Primarily through word-of-mouth, Napster quickly became an icon of pop culture. Computer-savvy types — most of them young college students — discovered that they could get any music they wanted over the Internet for free.

A great hue-and-cry arose as artists and record companies saw their copyrights become meaningless overnight and Napster was slapped with lawsuits that are not yet resolved.

The problem was not that the record industry or the musicians that stock it with their works were losing money. In fact, CD sales rose as Napster gained in popularity. Nor was the problem one of philosophy. For many years, music fans have been able to get free music by taping songs as they play on the radio or by making copies of CDs and audiotapes swapped among friends.

The problem was that Fanning was pushing a new paradigm at a lot of people who pretty much live in terror of change.

Out of the Cave

Bertelsmann has managed to climb out of the music industry’s cave of ignorance and realize that it’s not going to be blinded by the light. By hooking up with Napster, the media conglomerate is bravely riding the wave of the future — conceding that file-sharing is not only here to say, but also a great new way to distribute music.

Napster and Bertelsmann are planning to incorporate the file-sharing technology in a subscription service that will allow users to download an unlimited number of selections from Bertelsmann’s vast holdings for a single monthly fee. Artists and record companies will get a cut of the proceeds.

This is a win-win outcome, but some anti-Napster grumblers still can’t smell the roses.

It’s true that the lawsuit against Napster may result in vindication for the copyright defenders and the company could be shut down, but that won’t change anything in any substantial way. Bertelsmann has already said it will reopen Napster in any case, but more to the point, Fanning’s technology has been cloned into countless similar applications that can never be eradicated.

The less visible Napster clones accomplish the same file-sharing end through direct connections between user hard drives — no central servers are involved — so there is no one to sue for copyright infringement and no way to stop free music downloads. Ever.

Patience of a Saint

Napster users who want to avoid paying a monthly subscription fee will still be able to find some free music on the site. Fanning says free sharing will always be a component of Napster. Alternatively, they can use Gnutella or a slew of other Napster-like applications to continue swapping files.

Fanning may be remembered centuries from now less for his technical wizardry than his patience. Despite the venomous attacks against his brainchild, he has unswervingly maintained that his purpose is to introduce an improved system of distribution that will benefit everyone. Bertelsmann has stepped out of the shadows.

The rest of the industry had better catch up quick or they’re going to start looking like a bunch of wheezing old recalcitrants.

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