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Are We Promoting Piracy?

05/15/2001

After the publication of Steve McCannell's alt.napster, we got a call from radio host David Lawrence, host of radio show called Online Tonight. He wanted to talk to Steve and Tim O'Reilly about whether our story is advocating online piracy. A sometimes contentious interview, the conversation covers a wide range of issues on copyright and intellectual property. Here is a transcript of that interview.

David: Why did you assemble a series of alternatives to Napster knowing what kind of legal hassles Napster is going through now?

Steve: Well, I was more interested in the protocols and file sharing in general than the whole Napster ho-ha-whatnot. All of a sudden people aren't constrained by the record labels' way of distributing their information and promoting whichever artist they would prefer to promote, and it's interesting how people are reacting to that.

David: Sort of inherent in that statement is a spin -- just as it would be a spin to say, "Well, all they're doing is using Napster to steal," because I'm sure there are some files on Napster that aren't held by some other copyright holder than the person making them available. What is the difference between Napster and any other alternative to Napster and a glorified Archie search on a bunch of FTP sites?

Tim: There are a lot of interesting differences. At the end of the day you're asking a whole lot of different questions wrapped up into one. Napster technically is not that much of a change from many things that went on before. You could, in fact, download lots of MP3s off the Web long before Napster was out there. What Napster did was revolutionary, and really interesting. They said, "Hey, we don't have to host the files ourselves, we don't even have to give people software so that they can host the files themselves. We're going to make hosting files a byproduct of consuming files." And that was a revolutionary change.

David: Why? Archie did the same thing. Archie didn't host any file. Archie went out, looked at the FTP index and brought back results. And that's what Napster does.

Tim: But it assumed that you had an FTP server. Having an Archie client didn't automatically expose the files that you were using to other users. And it was the fact that Napster realized that you could join the client and the server at the hip that really changed the nature of computing.

David: All right, so I know you think that's revolutionary and stuff, but think of the way Warez sites work. It's a circle of friends that crack software and you're only invited by admission, you're only invited if they know you, and then they do open up their FTP files to you. I mean, what's the difference?

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Tim: Well, the difference is 60 million users versus probably a few hundred thousand in the know.

David: Right, who are all being told right now, through the filtering of Napster, that what they were doing was wrong.

Tim: Let's back up a little bit. I have to say I'm not someone who says that Napster has it all right, and in fact I don't think that we're anywhere near the equilibrium point that we need to get to for online music. But what happened when Napster came out was that all of a sudden something that had been kind of a backroom exercise by hackers suddenly became thoroughly mainstream. Anybody could do it. So they were in a way a canary in the coal mine, if you like, that was telling us that high-speed networking was becoming ubiquitous.

I believe firmly that most people want to pay for what they use online. It sounds like an odd and contrary thing to say, but the biggest problem that we have right now with online music is there is no legitimate alternative. The music companies have basically stood in the way of any legitimate alternative. So they're getting what they deserve -- that is, piracy, because there's no other way to do it.

Comment on this articleIs downloading music stealing? Are there any legitimate uses of Napster? What is the industry's responsibility here? Users'?
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David: But they've already had piracy forever. I remember back in the '90s people were sending .au files around, so it's not like piracy has never existed. It's just never existed on such a massive scale. And it's never existed with such wonderful, glowing reviews from industry leaders as though it's some sort of revolution.

Tim: Again, you have to realize, I believe Napster is a revolution. It's ridiculous to say that it isn't. You don't get 60 million people using something if it's not a revolution, even if that revolution is only in ease of use. The fact is that we need to take what Napster did right and put it together with a business model and with an industry that's supportive of using it as a distribution medium.

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