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Music, copyright, access to information, and the changing Internet "Business pulled our culture away from the idea that music is important and emotional and sacred ... But new technology has brought a real opportunity for change; we can break down the old system and give musicians real freedom and choice" (Courtney Love, June 2000).

"Concerned that they will be sucked into the legal onslaught of the music industry against the controversial Napster web site, at least a third of US universities have blocked access to the site. The fear appears to be well founded ..." (Jon Marcus, September 2000).

"Love it or hate it ... Napster ... has forced record companies to rethink their business models and record-company lawyers and recording artists to defend their intellectual property ... Napster ... [has] come to personify the bloody intersection where commerce, culture and freedom of expression are colliding" (Karl Taro Greenfeld, October 2000).

Copyright, intellectual property, freedom of expression, free access to information, restriction of access and censorship are issues that have long concerned librarians and teacher-librarians. Now they are being given more than usual prominence outside our profession as a result of some new Internet developments, specifically developments associated with the availability of music files on the Internet.

Decisions that are currently facing courts in several countries, and deals that have been struck between new technology firms and traditional media companies, are likely to affect us all -- particularly our access to non-print information via the Internet. Meanwhile, we find Courtney Love and supporters of the First Amendment right to free speech on one side of the debate; Metallica, the Motion Picture Association of America, and The Recording Industry Association of America on the other; with many more players somewhere in between. This argument is about digital piracy versus freedom of access to information, and the right of composers and performers to benefit financially from their creations. It is also about what is variously seen as \ldblquote the battle of the future" (Alexander, 2000) or an attempt by the traditional media companies to maintain the status quo. What is happening?

For some time, music has been available via the Internet, either broadcast or available for downloading from some Web sites. Much of the music has been in what is known as MP3 format (short for ISOMPEG Audio Layer-3, originally developed in Germany in 1987). MP3 is a data compression technology that allows digital music files to be stored without occupying huge amounts of disc space, and to be transmitted without taking up enormous amounts of bandwidth. Music files are encoded into MP3 format for storage and transmission, and then decoded by an MP3 player or other device and played back. Hundreds of thousands of people have stored music files on their computers in MP3 format, either as a result of downloading the files, recording the music themselves, or transferring it from a CD. While other compression and storage formats have emerged (Pilieci, 2000), MP3 remains the most popular.

Enter 18-year-old Shawn Fanning. Over a period of three months in mid-1999, he wrote the source code for a music file-sharing program that he called Napster. This allowed computer users to swap music files (initially in MP3 format) over the Internet, without going through a central server - what is known as a peer-to-peer (P2P) network system. Through the Napster web site, users could find out where music files were stored on the computers of other users, and download those files using the Napster program on their own computers. Napster also enabled the users to ignore legal issues like copyright and ownership of information, though it has to be said that not all downloaded music is in breach of copyright, and some artists encourage downloading of selected files as a form of publicity. While Karl Taro Greenfeld's assessment that "legal issues aside, Fanning's program already ranks amongst the greatest Internet applications ever, up there with e-mail ..." is probably over-generous to Napster, it is certain that there were almost 30 million Napster users worldwide by the end of the year 2000. Fanning was featured on Time magazine's cover on 2 October 2000, by which time Napster was a major corporation. And it is interesting to note that while it has been argued in court and in print that Napster will take sales away from the record companies, the sales of music CDs have actually increased since mid-1999 (Greenfeld, 2000, 65).

Napster is not the only player on the music file-sharing scene. Scour, a service through which users can swap music and video files, has also been the focus of litigation in 2000. Others include Gnutella and FreeNet.

Many other organizations, whether by design or by accident, have been caught up in the arguments and even the court cases that have resulted from the widespread use of Napster and other similar Internet programs and services. Some musicians, unhappy with what they see as the punitive contracts of and the financial and artistic control exercised by the major players in the traditional music industry, have looked to these new technologies as a way of asserting control over their own music and its distribution or of establishing contact with an audience (see, for example, Howard-Baker, 2000). The universities, on the other hand, particularly in North America, are more reluctant players in the drama, as witness The Times Higher Education Supplement headline, "Colleges Caught in Music Wrangle." Some universities initially banned Napster because they were concerned with the amount of system bandwidth that was being taken up with music files, while others were waiting for court rulings on whether or not the service violated copyright laws, and still others were threatened with legal action by lawyers for Metallica and other artists (Marcus, 2000, 15). However, some universities were refusing to block student access to Napster, citing variously concerns about restriction of free enquiry or censorship and an unwillingness to be driven into the position of acting as enforcers for the recording industry. How are elementary and secondary schools responding to these issues? There is little information available at the time of writing.

Regardless of the outcome of any debate on the matter, it is clear that the large recording companies have already recognized that they need to come to terms with these developments, and indeed to incorporate them into their business models. The question is how. The strategic alliance between Napster and European media \ldblquote giant" Bertelsmann (and BMG, its music unit, which had been among the organizations suing Napster), reported in the 13 November 2000 issue of Newsweek, is perhaps an indicator of the future. Another is a legal settlement between and the Universal Music Group (reported in the New York Times of 15 November 2000). However, there are problems to be overcome, not the least of which are the technical difficulties of developing a secure, piracy-proof way for record companies and musicians to sell music downloads and to profit from them. An other question is whether Internet users will actually be willing to pay for such a service if it is put in place.

The last word goes to Conor Normile, in a commentary for Internet company Nua: "Napster - vehicle for piracy or tool of democracy? At this stage, whether Napster is morally wrong is almost beside the point. What is clear is that online music distribution is here to stay, and regardless of the outcome of the Napster trial, the `big five' record companies will have to find some way of using it to their benefit."


Alexander, Garth. (2000, August 6). Cyber-raiders attack Hollywood. The Sunday Times, Business Focus, p. 5.

Excite MP3/Audio Search



Greenfeld, Karl Taro. (2000, October 2). Meet the Napster. Time, 60-66

Howard-Baker, Tracey. (2000, November 16). Music and the Internet revolution. Free Pint, 75. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: issues/161100.htm#tips

Love, Courtney. (2000, June 14). Salon. Retrieved from Salon on the World Wide Web: 2000/06/14/love/index.html

Marcus, Jon. (2000, September 15). Colleges caught in music wrangle. The Times Higher Education Supplement, p.15.

The music business\rquote s digital challenge. (2000, November 1). The Economist. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=410343


Normile, Conor. (2000, November 20). \ldblquote Who will pay the piper?" Nua editorial retrieved from the World Wide Web: analysis/weekly_editorial/archives/issue 1 no153.html

Pilieci, Vito. (2000, June 29). MP3 may go the way of eight-track. Financial Post, p. C8.


Sherman, Chris. (2000) "Napster: Copyright killer or distribution hero?" Online, 24 (6), 16-28.

Stone, Brad. (2000, August 7). The day the music (almost) died. Newsweek, pp.60-62.

Stone, Brad. (2000). The odd couple. Newsweek, p.39.

Note from the author: This article was written in late 2000. In early 2001, the United States Court of Appeals ruled that Napster technology violates copyright laws. While this decision probably raises more questions than it answers, it will certainly mean that Napster will be changing some of its operational strategies. Meanwhile, since the court decision related specifically to Napster, it will probably open the way (at least in the short term) for other music file-sharing technologies. See articles by Adam Cohen and Chris Taylor in the 26 February 2001 issue of Time.

Anne Clyde is Professor in the Faculty of Social Science at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. She can be reached at <>
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Author:Clyde, Anne
Publication:Teacher Librarian
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2001
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