The theory and practice of Napster

A professor who teaches a class on ethics and technology sees the issues around Napster a little differently than his students do. But both say Napster deserves to survive.

“While it’s primarily used right now for copyright violation, it’s a general-purpose tool for sharing information across a large number of computers,” said RCA Professor of Artificial Intelligence Mitchell Marcus. “Software that allows peer-to-peer sharing of information across large networks will actually be important for uses that are legitimate.”

For that reason, he agrees that the University’s recent rebuff of a request to block campus access to Napster is the right thing to do.

But he also says he understands the concerns of the artists and record manufacturers trying to shut Napster down. People don’t appreciate the importance of protecting intellectual property rights.

“Violating intellectual property rights is illegal, immoral and likely in the long term to do damage to things that [students] care about,” he said. “The fact that most people in society don’t yet value intellectual property the way they value physical property is something that requires major education.”

Marcus tries to provide that education in his computer science course CSE 100, “Information Technology and its Impact on Society,” which tackled the issue of swapping copyrighted music over the Internet last year and will again this spring.

But not everyone who has heard his views buys the argument that swapping songs on-line deprives artists of their intellectual property. Marisa Kaplan (C/W’01), who took Marcus’ course last year, said musicians and the record industry are being short-sighted when they go after services that allow individuals to share their favorite songs.

“[Napster] might actually increase their profits,” she said. “I’d never download something I intended to buy, like an entire CD, but what if I downloaded a song from someone I hadn’t heard and then decide to buy the CD? Or go to their next concert?”

Napster user Paige Beatty (C’03) agreed that Napster actually helps musicians by introducing their fans to new work that they later purchase. “If I like an artist and they have something new on Napster that I haven’t heard before, I’ll download it and then if I like it, I’ll go out and buy the CD,” she said.

And, she added, blocking access to music files won’t make students buy CDs either. “The only reason I would not buy a CD is because I don’t like it and would never buy it anyway, even if I couldn’t get the song on Napster. And I think a lot of my friends are the same way in that respect.”


Originally published on October 12, 2000