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Notes From The Flip Side: 09.10.2000

I suppose I might as well admit that I really like Napster. When I first started lambasting Metallica (and, by proxy, the RIAA) for that ridiculous suit, I did it on general principle. Now that I've actually used Napster, I'm a huge fan of it.

I support Napster if only because it provides a means to find out-of-print records and songs. Does the artist make any money? Nope. Are they making any money off collectors who sell records for absurd prices at auction or tape trading, the only two other means of getting those songs? Nope. Are the record companies keeping their work in print so they can make money off it? Nope.

I'm going to propose the radical notion that music fans have a moral obligation to spread rare, out-of-print, unreleased and hard-to-find songs, regardless of the medium. Really, who cares if someone tapes a concert and rips it to MP3? Who cares if a demo makes it out of the studio and onto a fan site somewhere? Who cares if a song that hasn't been available through any legitimate means in years is suddenly readily downloadable?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that if the record companies are unwilling to maintain the cultural archives of our time and ensure the availability of works that possess significant musical merit, then fans must take it upon themselves to obtain and distribute these works by any means necessary (with all due respect to Malcolm).

In short, I'm saying that if record labels don't want to keep something in print because it doesn't make them money, then they have absolutely no moral right to it. At that point, it should belong to the artist first and, in the event the artist is dead or unwilling to distribute it, the fans. And fans must, like the fictional Guy Montag in Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," begin preserving these works themselves.

Ironically, support for the notion of peer-to-peer distributed archiving comes from a seemingly unlikely place - librarians. Then again, librarians, perhaps more than any other occupation, truly understand the dangers of limited access to ideas of any form and the risk of losing ideas that are not widely distributed and preserved, which leads to the idea of the LOCKSS (Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) architecture. In short, most librarians seem to support distributed file sharing, regardless of whether it takes the form of music, papers, books, movies or any other creative work because preserving the knowledge artifact is more important than intellectual property laws. From the ethical perspective of someone trying to preserve ideas, distribution for profit is irrelevant.

After all, when corporations control a populace's access to material, does that not then become the intellectual equivalent of fascism, albeit a form of fascism instituted through economics as opposed to military force? It's a rhetorical question; I'm sure you can figure out where I stand.

There is one factor which is largely missing from this brief essay - the artist. There is a significant reason - for all intents and purposes, when viewing corporate control of information through the lens of ethics and morals, the artist must necessarily fall on the side of the listeners. Both parties are equally deprived - the artist of livelihood and the listeners of music that should be preserved.

In such a model, both parties must be opposed to corporate structures seeking to defend the financial status quo, even if it does destroy traditional models of intellectual property. After all, the current model is that the corporation reduces artists to the creative equivalent of serfs and virtually enslaves them to a record label. Here are a few references (all links open in new browser window):

Courtney Love's speech to the Digital Hollywood conference
Steve Albini's "The Problem With Music"
Negativland's collection of articles about intellectual property
O'Reilly's analysis of peer-to-peer file sharing

In the end, it's fairly simple - corporations don't care about art. They care about money and preserving their bottom line. Anything that challenges their distribution chains is a mortal threat. To them, Napster, despite being the best thing to happen to distribution chains for music fans in ages, must be stopped. To myself and most of my friends, Napster is a call to arms, not because it represents a way to get free music, but because it represents a way to preserve the musical record of our times.

I suppose I should also note that the Napster suit is largely irrelevant. GNUtella, FreeNet and a host of other distributed file sharing clients are waiting in the wings. They aren't companies. They don't have centralized servers. There is no entity to sue. And you're right - for that very reason, they can't be stopped. Record labels may win the battle with Napster, but they haven't realized that they're already obsolete. The revolution is over. The network won. Game, set, match.

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