Like a master of puppets pulling the strings of the legal system, heavy metal band Metallica filed suit April 14 against three universities and Napster.com, accusing the universities of enabling students to access Napster's service and illegally copy music files. Although copying protected music is clearly illegal, holding Napster and the universities responsible for the conduct of individual students would set a dangerous precedent for the restriction of students' online freedoms.
It is sad but true that the illegal piracy of copyrighted music has become commonplace in universities across the nation with the introduction of MP3 compression, which can convert an entire compact disc of music into files small enough to be easily transmitted across college networks. Indeed, the problem of overloading networks with music files was the first issue to face universities after the launch of Napster.com: Northwestern University banned use of the service last fall after it began to consume more than 20 percent of the traffic on the campus network.
The Napster software allows users to search for and download MP3 files from other users, while at the same time making their own collection universally available. As a result, Napster has been wading through uncharted legal waters since its founding, and has already been sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). It is strange that the recording industry has been so averse to the sharing of MP3 files; college students are some of the industry's best customers and it has been argued that listening to MP3 files increases, rather than decreases, students' music purchases.
But for bands such as Metallica, copying is illegal, and nothing else matters. According to Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, "With each project, we go through a grueling creative process to achieve music that we feel is representative of Metallica at that very moment in our lives...It is therefore sickening to know that our art is being traded like a commodity rather than the art that it is."
The artistic pride of the band that produced "Kill 'Em All" gives no strength to a lawsuit that should fail on the merits. The suit, which was filed by Metallica, E/M Ventures and Creeping Death Music, claims that by failing to block student access to the Napster servers, Yale University, Indiana University and the University of Southern California violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute. Such a claim should not be allowed to stand. Although the majority of MP3 files are illegal copies of protected music, online distribution of free music is growing, and there are few channels for dissemination of this music as effective as Napster. Universities should not be forced to deny students access to a service with legal uses for fear that it will be used illegally. Furthermore, it is unclear whether universities should bear legal responsibility for the actions of students. The network policy of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences already prohibits the duplication of others' intellectual property; the mere act of providing a student with an Ethernet connection would hardly make the University complicit in violations of its own policy.
Technology may soon make the decision in this particular lawsuit obsolete; new programs known as "Gnutella" and "FreeNet" may allow the Napster-like sharing of all types of data, not just MP3 files, and such services would be difficult to shut down because they would not rely, as does Napster, on a central server for searches. However, if carried to its conclusion, the spirit in which the lawsuit was filed would make universities into electronic gatekeepers, watching each packet of data sent across the network and monitoring students' activities online for fear of being held legally responsible for any of their misdeeds.
Such a role is incompatible with a university's mission to promote academic and intellectual freedom. Harvard University has already expressed its well-founded intent to continue to allow Napster use, and Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 has rightly written that "content filtering would be wholly incompatible with the principle of free inquiry and open access to information."