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David Miller: The Case Of Napster

The Case of Napster. The Halting of Online Information.

Another judgement day looms for online music swap site Napster this week. The website which allows its users to swap music files and download them for free is facing another legal challenge in the US courts, although this time the site may be shut down permanently if the ruling is found against it. Napster is one on the most popular services on the Internet at the moment. There are over 57 million people registered with it and each day an average of 8.5 million people log on to the site. However there are those who seek its closure, claiming it breaches copyright laws and deprives artists and record labels of their income, but can Napster and sites similar to it be closed down?

The possibility that Napster could be shut down has led to frenzy of music seekers logging onto the site in order to download tracks, although Napster itself has said that it is confident that its services will remain active. Once a user has joined and been given a username then that person can gain access to almost any music track they desire. Using the file swapping programmes on the site, the user can either trade their own MP3 tracks or download others to their hard drive.

MP3s have become the most popular and well-established form of download music on the Internet and have been so since the mid 1990’s. Now it is possibly to buy MP3 players in appliance shops, which are similar to the handheld Walkman only the play MP3 disks rather than cassette tapes of CDs. MP3s are one of a number of forms in which music can be downloaded however they are the most common. An MP3 is simply a WAV or sound file that has been encoded or compressed down to a much smaller size and a particular rate known as bitrate. The speed with which this is done determines how clear the quality is.

An associated problem is that once the music has been downloaded if someone has the correct computer hardware then it can become a simple task to make ones own audio CD, with the quality as good as that on one purchased over the counter at a record store. One other point here is that the technology is now available allowing a computer user to transfer MP3’s from one hard drive to another.

As this service is free it deprives record companies of their revenue and this prompted the collection of them to sue Napster in 1999 for copyright infringement. Last July a US Judge ordered Napster’s closure however the website was granted a stay by the Court of Appeal. Such attempts to have Napster shut down has ironically given it access to wider media coverage and a greater number of users. The most notable case of recent times is the case of rock band Metallica suing the site simply because so many fans who otherwise would be in record stores purchasing their albums were downloading them for free.

The issue of Napster along with piracy and copyright infringement are part of a much wider debate as to the spread of information over the Internet. Such a debate has split opinions worldwide between those who want to uphold the freedom of expression and speech and those trying to find a compromise as to allow the flow of information and at the same time protect vulnerable people or those who find particular material offensive

A recent example of this is the Germany and France investigations into Yahoo!’s online auction at which it is alleged that there was nazi memorabilia, including copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf for sale. Both countries maintain a ban on such items and this highlights how the Internet can be used, inadvertently or not, to circumvent a countries laws. Police in Tokyo inspected Yahoo’s offices there after reports that a man was using the company’s auctions to sell child pornography.

In most countries around the world laws governing the Internet are still evolving and the problem for those who seek the filtering of material is that there will be no one law for all states. Court rulings as to whether an Internet Service Provider (ISP) is responsible for what is shown on websites it hosts have gone either way in countries around the world and such efforts to police the net not only open up a whole territory of legal implications but are faced with these discrepancies between countries. Even Germany which has some of the toughest anti racism laws in the world, has decided that while it might be able to stop the promotion of nazi material from within its own borders it cannot prevent its citizens from gaining access to nazi material overseas, such is the diversity and extent of the World Wide Web.

Two problems surface from this debate. The first is that although one agrees that racist material should be banned what is to stop another regime elsewhere in the world stopping the flow of information that is considered acceptable, for example, the ideals of democracy. The second is that even if Napster is shut down the problem for those who believe they lost out due to it does not disappear with it. One only has to go to search engines such as AltaVista, Dogpile, or GoTo.Com and finding the sites to obtain the free music and any other source of information is relatively easy, all you need is time. This is that size of the task that those wishing to censor the Internet are faced with, an impossible one. It is now down to the ISP’s and users alike to make sure the positive side of the Internet is what is promoted and offensive content is disposed with, because overall it is a tool we cannot do without.

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