Napster will get its day in court in early October, and the file-swapping setup has some industry friends in high places. But regardless of the trial's outcome, some of technology's leading lights believe they've seen the future in what the upstart company represents: the "future is peer-to-peer" and the applications it makes possible.
Napster, for its part, claims it provides a service that lets people share music among themselves, which is legal under the "fair use" doctrine of copyright law. The company likens its software to audio and video recorders, which the Supreme Court has ruled are legal even though they can be used for illegal purposes.
Internal documents showing that Napster has known all along its service was built on the lure of free music didn't help last month when the company tried to sell its fair use argument to a federal judge, who also rejected the notion that software and computers were recording devices. An 11th-hour stay of that judge's injunction, which would have forced Napster to disable its service, allowed the company to keep on keeping on.
The immediate focus of the case is on music, but its outcome will be felt in other art forms and media, including films, books, video, and their associated industries. Indeed, technology has associated all these media and industries, rendering the lines that have conventionally separated them a blur. Digital technology only accelerates that process, with Napster the latest phenomenon to be thrust out of the convergence blender and into the world's lap.
Napster has recently received strong support from a wide range of technology and Internet industry groups who have filed "friends of the court" briefs criticizing the judge's rejection of many of Napster's key arguments. Their concern is that the decision could set precedents that threaten the development of new consumer technologies and products. They believe the judge was too restrictive in her reading of less-than perfect copyright law, which they believe needs to be reinterpreted and revised in a less "overprotective" manner to accommodate changes brought by in technology.
The industry groups supporting Napster claim a motley membership. Their interests can align or diverge from issue to issue, and may even diverge from the official positions of the groups they belong to. Accordingly, the court briefs have been filed by groups like the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the Digital Media Association (DiMA), and NetCoalition, but not by their individual member companies.
However, among the companies paying dues to the dot-orgs are Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN), America Online (NYSE: AOL), Apple Computer (Nasdaq: AAPL), Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO), EMusic (Nasdaq: EMUS), Excite@Home (Nasdaq: ATHM), Listen.com, Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), Sony (NYSE: SNE), and Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO).
Merely scanning those names becomes a meditation on overlapping and perhaps even self-contradictory interests. In addition, a working group has been formed among almost two dozen high-tech companies, including Intel (Nasdaq: INTC), IBM (NYSE: IBM), and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HWP), with the intention of exploring broader applications of the "peer-to-peer" technology that Napster has helped bring front and center.
Officially, the bunch are "neutral on Napster"; they've expressed no opinion on the legal issues. Nevertheless, their founding premise is that "the future is peer-to-peer," and the applications it makes possible.
Can Napster's high-powered and deep-pocketed supporters help the company stay on beat? Is peer-to-peer really the future? Peer into the future and share your thoughts on the Napster discussion board.