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Copyright Laws, Napster and Personal Ethics

The current lawsuits against Napster have brought out new ethical issues surrounding the exchange of MP3s and copyrighted material on the Internet. This paper discusses the ethical case against those who participate in MP3 trading services such as Napster and suggests ethical alternatives to these services. The free exchange of CD-quality music in the form of MP3s has created quite a stir in the media in the past few years and has forced the public to take a hard look at the laws governing electronic data.

After the invention of MP3 files and the creation of free distribution channels such as Napster, individual users of the Internet gained incredible power in interpreting copyright laws. In the midst of the lawsuits and the controversy surrounding Napster and digital copyright laws, the Internet user must determine how to ethically decide on the use of MP3s. Of all controversies surrounding digital copyright laws on the Internet, the Napster lawsuit has received the most media attention because of its wide popularity and revolutionary approach to file sharing.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is suing this Internet service for “lost revenue” from songs Napster users downloaded for free using its services. As the RIAA represents major record labels such as Warner Brothers, this lawsuit represents the first major copyright litigation brought against an Internet service. In addition, this lawsuit has many implications for other laws governing the Internet, not just those pertaining to copyright infringement.

This case is forcing America and other countries to think about the laws that govern the relationship between companies that provide Internet services and ones that provide Internet content. On the legal side, section 512(a) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 says, in essence, that those who provide Internet services are not held accountable for the content that passes through their systems (1).

On May 5 of last year, however, a U. S. District Judge rejected Napster’s use of the Copyright Act to defend itself because Napster is not a Service Provider’ in that it does not actually provide the connections for the users. Napster only provides address information for two users trying to connect and thus is not governed by this law. Until recently, Napster has also relied on the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act which defines music copied for personal use as legal, but late last year another District Judge decided that Napster was conversely contributing to widespread copyright infringements (7).

The Napster case has caused rifts between both Internet users and artists. Most artists equate MP3 trading as nothing other than thievery, but there are also artists who believe that Napster will give them more exposure and help their music careers. Lars Ulrich, of the popular rock group Metallica has been extremely vocal in his condemnation of Napster and has even won lawsuits forcing Napster to ban users who trade Metallica music. Artists who side with Napster are such famous musicians as rapper Chuck D. and Limp Bizkit (1).

Even if the RIAA were to win the lawsuit and Napster’s activities were judged illegal, it would be almost impossible to stop MP3 trading on the Internet. Other programs, such as Gnutella (http://www. gnutella. com), give users the same file exchange capabilities as Napster but have no central server (1). Each network that a user sets up becomes an autonomous MP3 server, so the government cannot target a single site and shut it down to prevent online users from exchanging MP3 files. Thus even people who side with the RIAA are skeptical that this activity will stop anytime soon.

In recent news, Napster signed a contract with music supplier Bertelsmann AG (BMG) to provide download-for-pay MP3s to their current user base (3). Critics and users are skeptical of Napster’s attempts to move into the subscription-based MP3 service arena. Current Napster users use the service because it is free and they can download an unlimited amount of music. In ethical discussions surrounding this controversy, people tend to focus on the question, “Is it moral to provide a service for people to freely download copyrighted material?

Once this question is posed, the discussion usually goes into issues of the moral responsibility of providing copyrighted content as opposed to providing Internet services. By turning the focus on Napster, I think many people miss the point and never make a personal ethical decision. In his article on the BMG deal, EWeek Reporter Dennis Fisher comments, “In order to make money, industry observers say, both Napster and MP3. com must enhance the user experience to the point where it’s more attractive to pay for digital music, than to get it for free”(2).

Rephrased, this quote could be stated, “The burden is on Napster to help people do the right thing. ” This statement is ludicrous. People need to ask themselves, “What is the difference between stealing a CD off the shelf and downloading a CD off Napster? ” In my opinion, there is little difference in these actions. The main argument in support of Napster and the free distribution of copyrighted music over the Internet is that people who trade music on Napster are already music lovers and will buy even more albums if they have the chance to hear the albums.

It is interesting to see the number of people who attempt to absolve music theft by supporting this unfounded argument. There is even “statistical evidence” on the Internet to support this claim, but the data and conclusions from these reports are weak at best and there are many reports that prove the converse (4,5,6). Everyone seems to try their hardest to justify getting copyrighted music for free. People use the “dubbed tape” argument as well, saying that nobody has any problems with making a mixed tape for a friend. But dubbing tapes is an entirely different issue.

Tapes are not perfect copies of an original, and they degrade in quality over time. Thus tapes are similar to time-limited trial versions of software. So this argument may hold for tape dubbing, but not for MP3 files. Making a mixed music tape for a friend could become and effective advertisement for the artist, but with MP3s there exists no incentive to go out and purchase the album after obtaining a digital copy of the music. The sound will not degenerate and it is much easier to organize files on a computer than it is to organize hundreds of physical compact disks.

There are many people who have thousands of MP3s stored on their computers and have not spent money on compact disks for years. When Napster came out a few years back, I was confronted by this same question: is it ethical to download MP3s for free from the Internet? All of my friends around me seemed to have no problem with Napster and would even poke fun at those who voice concern over the issue. I did not really think about it too much, so I began collecting MP3s as well. At that time, I was taking an electronic music composition course, and had been paired up with a friend whom I greatly respect as a musician.

We spent a great deal of time together talking about music and the composition process. I wanted him to understand a certain composition technique, so I sent him an MP3 of the song I had been describing. He wrote back, “If it’s an MP3, I don’t want it. As a musician, I wouldn’t feel right taking money away from musicians by doing that. ” His reply helped me to begin thinking about MP3s and the ethical dilemma that it represents. I began to realize not only how morally questionable MP3 trading is, but also just how much damage Napster and MP3 trading could do to the struggling musician.

Most people who use Napster are already people who are familiar with the Internet and technology, and therefore a large percentage of them will download music that appeals to people who have a strong link to technology, such as electronica. But there are very few electronica bands that are successful yet, and many are still struggling for recognition. Napster and other MP3 exchange services directly steal from the revenue that would be going into the pockets of these artists. So after thinking through all the ethical issues behind Napster and the exchange of MP3s, I came to the conclusion that trading MP3s could not be ethically justified.

Some MP3 sites are signing deals with record companies to sell songs over the Internet for a reduced price, and I think this is a great idea. It reduces the environmental impact of music distribution because it cuts out all the plastic packaging and material that goes into CDs. MP3 supporters could use this argument, too, but I’m suggesting a solution that can be beneficial to the environment and ethically justifiable. Pay-for-download sites channel money to the artists that rightfully deserve it.

Companies like IBM are attempting to create compressed formats with copyright protection built-in, but I don’t think that these solutions will work. Internet users with technical know-how cracked DeCSS (the DVD encryption standard) and will probably not find it too difficult to break any software encryption embedded in music files. MP3 file downloaders need to become aware of the illegality of their actions and make choices based on them. I strongly believe that more people, especially college students, need to think about the ethical issues surrounding MP3s before they assume that downloading them is justifiable.

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