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Fanning the Flames.

A Pandora's box may have been opened recently when Napster founder Shawn Fanning called on "free" music fans to descend on our nation's capital and catch the attention of legislators holding hearings on online copyright issues. Although turnout for the event was poor, Fanning's call to arms could signal a dramatic change in the way American companies interact with the federal government.

Traditionally, U.S. corporations have used conventional opinion-molding tactics -- persuasive lobbyists, ingenious PR campaigns -- to influence legislators on issues affecting their businesses. But by fusing the interests of his company with the interests of his customers, Fanning has attempted to turn an issue of dollars and cents into an issue of intellectual freedom, thereby transforming l'affaire Napster into a cause celebre. People haven't done this sort of thing since the '6os.

As noted, the turnout for the rally was pitiful. But that was probably because Napster issued its summons only a week before the hearings. Were Napster a larger, richer, better-organized company, the streets might have been filled with angry men and women demanding the federal government keep its hands off their music.

Suppose, for example, Bill Gates had taken to the airwaves last year to encourage Microsoft employees and shareholders to march on Washington and demand that the Justice Department stop persecuting his company. Imagine the tumult in our nation's capital had Microsoft marshaled its vast human resources: Young people shouting, "Two, four, six, eight; give a break to Mr. Gates." Legions of middle-aged citizens carrying placards reading: "Bundling Browsers With Operating Systems Is Not a Federal Offense!" while others bellow, "Free Mumia! Free Net Access!" Shell-shocked seniors brandishing cans of dog food, the horrendous rations to which they'd been reduced after their Microsoft stock went into the tank. Finally, we'd see legions of pro-Gates protesters skirmishing with counter-protesters dispatched by his arch-enemies Scott McNealy and Larry Ellison. Not a pretty picture at all.

Microsoft shareholders wouldn't be the only ones. Over on Avenue K, stockholders in beleaguered drug companies would be picketing the White House, protesting FDA restrictions on the over-the-counter sale of sex stimulants. A few blocks away, shareholders in trucking companies would be protesting outrageous fuel prices and demanding military pressure on the relevant OPEC culprits. And in front of USDA headquarters, shareholders in firms that make genetically mutated corn would be locked in pitch battle against natural foods zealots who view such products as the spawn of Dr. Frankenstein.

If American shareholders ever did cascade into the streets to protest a congressional ruling, all sorts of ethical conundrums might arise. For starters, the National Guard would have to carefully vet the troops on duty to ensure that none were disgruntled shareholders in Sun Microsystems, Oracle, or any of Microsoft's other embittered competitors. Simultaneously, the police would have to be on the lookout for shell-shocked Apple investors, still miffed about Windows' eclipse of the Apple operating system; one angry remark, one clenched fist, or one itchy trigger finger and who knows what misfortune might occur on the Esplanade?

And then there's the troubling issue of short-sellers. Short-sellers are traditionally depicted by corporations as satanic spoilsports who routinely spread hideous lies about the companies they're betting against. With this for a reputation, it's not inconceivable that short-sellers might hire provocateurs to incite a full-scale riot, thus giving the protesting corporation a huge public relations black eye, driving the stock down still further.

I for one am happy Napster's call to arms met with such staggering indifference. Had it succeeded, we might have seen millions of tightfisted air travelers descend on Washington to demand a tax amnesty for embattled Hundreds of thousands of irate schoolchildren might have streamed into the streets demanding that the federal government bail out the embattled online toy retailer eToys the way it once did Chrysler. Do we really want to see our young children billy-clubbed and tear-gassed just because a company couldn't accept the verdict of the marketplace? This is the question Shawn Fanning needs to answer the next time he waves the bloody red flag.

Listen up, music lovers.

Joe Queenan's column appears monthly. Write him at
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Title Annotation:Napster chief Shawn Fanning calls for protest
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Previous Article:To B2B or not To B2N.
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