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How Free Is the Internet?

This summer, the buzz word around the net was "Napster." Napster cau- sed not only a huge amount of controversies and debates but also ended up in a legal battle between its creator and the U.S. music industry.  It even involved a congressional hearing where the two sides offered their stories.
What is Napster and what was the controversy about? Napster is a file-sharing service which lets anyone share mp3 files over the net with just a few clicks. It not only enables people to upload and download mp3 files, but provides an easy way to search for music files over the net. If I want to download a mp3 file for Beatle's "Yellow Submarine," for example, I can type "Yellow Submarine" in a search section of the program.  It will show a list of hundreds of links for the song. All I have to do is to click one of the links and I will get the file within a short amount time, depending on the net connection speed. It was reported that 20 million people are using the service and have downloaded half a billion songs. Of course, Napster is so popular since it is completely free to use its service. Its users have been more than enthusiastic about uploading their mp3 files as well as downloading them. It is not just old and rare songs but songs just released. Napster has been so popular that we have witnessed a number of its variations including "Soribada," the Korean version of Napster.
What is the controversy? Of course, it is money. The music industry argues that it is plainly a high-tech piracy and violation of music copyrights. It also argues that few would buy CDs any more ruining the music industry and singers financially. Napster argues that it is not a piracy since it is "free" service--nobody is getting paid. Just like a telephone company cannot be sued for blackmailing over the phone, Napster cannot be legally responsible for how people use it.
The first round of the legal battle went to the music industry: the court ordered to close down the site. However, the second round went to Napster and its advocates: the court ruled that the ban should be lifted for now. The supporters of Napster and copylefts announced that they would continue to create similar services, if Napster is closed down again in the future.
It is a classic case of copyrights versus copylefts. It is classic since this is not the first debate on copyrights. When tape recorders and VCRs came out, music and file industries claimed that their market would be diminished by people using such technology to copy songs and movies. At the same time, however, there is a new aspect regarding the Napster case. The Napster phenomenon is new since it is part of digital revolution. Digital revolution is a fundamentally new technological change in which all kinds of information can be digitized, reproduced and communicated over the net with almost no monetary and time costs. Let's compare music tapes and mp3 files. Although the music industry worried that the arrival of tape recording would the number of music buyers. Like the movie market after the invention of VCR, however, the music market actually expanded substantially. What happened? People continued to buy LPs and tapes since the quality of songs in a tape deteriorated after a number of replays. Mp3 files are different in two aspects. First, once a song is digitized, digital copying exactly replicates the original file and will not low its quality, no matter how many times it is copied. Second, it would cost money to copy music in tapes and distribute them to even a few friends. However, it takes virtually no money to download mp3 files and upload to millions and millions of people over the net.
Copyright advocates argue that such internet service as Napster should be banned not just because it hurts their pocket. They argue that Napster should be banned because it robs singers and songwriters blatantly. Who would, they claim, spend their time to create songs any more when they would not be compensated for their efforts? Without appropriate compensation, they argue, no artists will spend their time on creative ideas and, consequently, we as cultural consumers will suffer. On the other hand, copyleft advocates contend that Napster and digital technology will, in fact, create another boom in a music industry market. More people will buy CDs of old and new songs after they find what they like from the net. The music industry complained about radios, tapes, LPs, and CDs for their negative effect on the music market. The copyleft supporters claim, however, that such new technologies turned out to expand the market. They argue that the CD sales, in fact, increased after Napster.
It is not clear which side will win eventually. Due to an enormous financial stake, it will be likely to cause an endless series of legal battles. The sure winner will be lawyers. Even if Napster is eventually banned, new Napsters will appear with a better interface and search capability. It will be impossible technologically to ban file sharing services. Recently new services for sharing movie files and even application programs have been coming out.
How free should be the net? Like other issues regarding technology and its application, there is no easy answer. First, we have to examine the extent to which the net affects the music industry. Then we need to build a social consensus since it is ultimately a social and political issue that should be decided by a social agreement, not by a legal or governmental decree. If we cannot reach a social consensus that copyrights should be honored, no technological and legal coercion would completely remove file sharing services from the net. Would we all find downloading a mp3 file as offensive as shoplifting a CD from the store? The verdict is not in yet.

The writer is a professor in the Dept. of Sociology at DU.

Park Chan-ung  sendipity@dongguk.edu

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