Issue 219, February 26, 2001  

Napster Ruling: The End Of Humanity
As We Know It?

By Stephen M. Lawton

      I have the solution to the problem of drivers making illegal left turns, and it's based on a recent ruling from a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. If you want to eliminate these nefarious characters, ban cars. Make it a law. If you eliminate the means to do such a vile and illegal act, then no one will and humanity as we know it will be saved.
      That's the logic behind the court's ruling on Napster, or so it seems. If you want to end the illegal actions of a company serving as a transport mechanism between individuals who are exchanging copyrighted materials, eliminate the conduit. Never mind that there are lots of good and legal reasons why two individuals might want to exchange copyrighted materials. There's an illegal message, so kill the messenger. Period.
      I can just imagine telling researchers that they can't send copyrighted material over the Internet. Sorry, researchers, but this information is copyrighted. Before you do anything, contact the copyright owner and ask permission to send that data to a colleague. Who cares if time is of the essence — this is more important.
      Let's use an example a little closer to home — how about a computer reseller who wants to send an electronic data sheet to a customer? Will that reseller have to contact all vendors to ask permission to send their respective copyrighted datasheets? Do they need that permission in writing? How about an authorized signature on each request so the reseller is satisfied that each usage of sending copyrighted material is approved?
      What we have here is a case of a court making bad public policy. Rather than dealing with a single act that allegedly is illegal, the court is painting with a broad brush, setting a dangerous precedent that effectively limits the flow of information.
      Will this court ruling put an end to Napster? Possibly, but it won't put an end to the sharing of copyrighted material over the Internet, be it music or text. What it will do is make virtually everyone who shares documents over the Internet a criminal.
      Am I being an alarmist? Maybe I am overstating the case. However, I think it's necessary to put all this into perspective: Copying music might indeed be a crime, but is it so serious as to regulate how people share information? It is up to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to promote good citizenship among music listeners, just as the Software & Information Industry Association reminds users that duplicating software violates their license.
      Maybe these music execs should talk to their film counterparts about the hazards of industry-destroying products, such as VCRs. That's right, folks, the film industry thought VCRs were the devil incarnate, but video sales have never been higher. Et tu, RIAA members?

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