Copyright Laws, Napster and Personal Ethics

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Copyright Laws, Napster and Personal Ethics

Abstract: The current lawsuits against Napster have brought out new ethical issues surrounding the exchange of MP3s and copyrighted material on the Internet. This paper discusses the ethical case against those who participate in MP3 trading services such as Napster and suggests ethical alternatives to these services.

The free exchange of CD-quality music in the form of MP3s has created quite a stir in the media in the past few years and has forced the public to take a hard look at the laws governing electronic data. After the invention of MP3 files and the creation of free distribution channels such as Napster, individual users of the Internet gained incredible power in interpreting copyright laws. In the midst of the lawsuits and the controversy surrounding Napster and digital copyright laws, the Internet user must determine how to ethically decide on the use of MP3s.

Of all controversies surrounding digital copyright laws on the Internet, the Napster lawsuit has received the most media attention because of its wide popularity and revolutionary approach to file sharing. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is suing this Internet service for "lost revenue" from songs Napster users downloaded for free using its services. As the RIAA represents major record labels such as Warner Brothers, this lawsuit represents the first major copyright litigation brought against an Internet service. In addition, this lawsuit has many implications for other laws governing the Internet, not just those pertaining to copyright infringement. This case is forcing America and other countries to think about the laws that govern the relationship between companies that provide Internet services and ones that provide Internet content.

On the legal side, section 512(a) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 says, in essence, that those who provide Internet services are not held accountable for the content that passes through their systems (1). On May 5 of last year, however, a U.S. District Judge rejected Napster's use of the Copyright Act to defend itself because Napster is not a ‘Service Provider' in that it does not actually provide the connections for the users. Napster only provides address information for two users trying to connect and thus is not governed by this law. Until recently, Napster has also relied on the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act which defines music copied for personal use as legal, but late last year another District Judge decided that Napster was conversely contributing to widespread copyright infringements (7).

The Napster case has caused rifts between both Internet users and artists. Most artists equate MP3 trading as nothing other than thievery, but there are also artists who believe that Napster will give them more exposure and help their music careers. Lars Ulrich, of the popular rock group Metallica has been extremely vocal in his condemnation of Napster and has even won lawsuits forcing Napster to ban users who trade Metallica music. Artists who side with Napster are such famous musicians as rapper Chuck D. and Limp Bizkit (1).

Even if the RIAA were to win the lawsuit and Napster's activities were judged illegal, it would be almost impossible to stop MP3 trading on the Internet. Other programs, such as Gnutella (, give users the same file exchange capabilities as Napster but have no central server (1). Each network that a user sets up becomes an autonomous MP3 server, so the government cannot target a single site and shut it down to prevent online users from exchanging MP3 files. Thus even people who side with the RIAA are skeptical that this activity will stop anytime soon.

In recent news, Napster signed a contract with music supplier Bertelsmann AG (BMG) to provide download-for-pay MP3s to their current user base (3). Critics and users are skeptical of Napster's attempts to move into the...
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