Definitely not the end for Napster-like theft

Online trading: Government must find a way to enforce old standards in a new world.

July 28, 2000

COPYRIGHT LAWS exist for good reasons.

So do libel and obscenity laws, and prohibitions against fraud.

But how do you enforce those Old World mores and standards in the Information Age, when they are obliterated on a daily basis by issues like the Internet's sheer freedom and ease of exchange?

That's ultimately the question in the quarrel over Napster, the online music trader that allows users to exchange copyrighted music for free. A federal judge slapped an injunction on Napster this week, saying that it wasn't much more than a piracy outfit.

But that's a little like confronting a swarm of hornets with a plastic fly-swatter. The injunction might squash Napster. But will it kill the nests of online music-swappers who number in the millions around the globe? No chance.

Napster's customers -- who can use copycat software to keep trading music if Napster dies -- number 20 million. You can probably double that number counting patrons of Freenet, Gnutella and the host of similar enterprises.

Moreover, given the wry insolence of Net culture, Wednesday's federal ruling will likely spawn the creation of new online ditty-swappers that are just different enough from Napster to avoid the reach of the law. Already, the Internet is buzzing with talk of a trader that will take Napster's place as soon as it shuts down.

The scourge is far from over.

But don't doubt that it's a scourge. Under the law, stealing intellectual property isn't much different from stealing a wallet. Say what you will about the music industry's greed and unsavory dealings with artists; the law is unquestionably on its side when it comes to taking its property.

The key is for the government to figure out how to regulate these transgressions without squelching the good things about the Internet, the revolutions in business and interpersonal relations that it has inspired. Traditional measures may not work, so new ways have to be found.

Is that a tall order? Absolutely -- and the best of luck to the government officials who are scrambling to fill it. Until they do, Napster and its ilk will continue to flout the standards that have protected all of our creations from unwarranted infringements.

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