The New Way to Shop

HARWICH, Mass.--This here is Napster country. Harwich, on the elbow of Cape Cod, is home to cranberry bogs, pristine New England shore and Shawn Fanning, founder of Napster Music Community. Last winter, at the beginning of what has become a Napster media blitz, I squealed with pride when I first saw my high school classmate pictured in U.S. News and World Report. I knew Napster--and the sweet kid I suffered through high school calculus with--had made it to the big time early last spring when he was featured in Rolling Stone. They don't just put anybody in Rolling Stone.

In any given day, roughly one to two percent of all U.S. Internet traffic uses Napster, according to Neilsen/Net ratings, an Internet audience measurement service. Other experts say that estimate is probably low. Napster itself claims more than 20 million users.

The company has often argued that the major record labels have failed to keep pace with the American consumer. And instead of working on its technology sprinting skills to catch up, the Recording Industry Association of America has cried copyright foul. The RIAA sued Napster for "contributory copyright infringement," and won a preliminary injunction against the company late last month in Federal District Court. But a higher court of appeals dismissed the injunction several days later, and oral arguments have been scheduled for September. Intellectual property experts and philosophers have tossed in their opinions, some supporting copyright law in its current incarnation, others saying Napster will inevitably alter what we view as the public domain.


Lofty allusions to copyright sanctity and public morality from both sides cannot hide the fact that the metaphorically big, fat, slow RIAA got outrun by the agile Napster in this technology race. Simply put, no major record label website puts so much music online. No major record label site is as easy to use.

Undoubtedly, part of Napster's appeal is the free music it offers. But an even bigger attraction is that Napster actually works--easily in fact. Napster is streamlined, straightforward and self-explanatory. Napster puts power in the hands of the consumer--power to access an incomparable selection of MP3's, power to choose precisely which songs to download, all with amazing speed and ease.

The major record labels have simply not provided this sort of selection in an online format. If Sony Records had thought of this first, and offered such convenience for a reasonable price, we'd all be die-hard Sony fans.

And without a doubt, the Internet technology that permits the average computer user to swap files online--all types of files--is here to stay. The Wall Street Journal turned Napster into a verb this summer when it ran the headline, the "Napsterization of Movies," referring to the web site Scour, a site whose users swap compressed movie files. Music files, movies video games and even needlepoint patterns are being shared online.

Yes, you read that right, needlepoint patterns. The Los Angeles Times ran a piece last month about the "Napster-like" swapping of patterns online. Evidently, needlepoint enthusiasts scan their paper patterns into their computer and save the file to a common spot on the web. Fellow stitchers print out the file, a copyrighted pattern they normally would have bought in a store.

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