On Sunday, Americans collectively tossed back a beer, wondered when the pizza would arrive, and hoped Paul McCartney wouldn’t have a wardrobe malfunction.
Napster was buying selling them a world where they don’t own the things they buy.
In Napster‘s advertisement which aired during Super Bowl XXXIX — coincidentally, viewer’s least favorite commercial of the night — Napster’s cat mascot holds up a sign informing music downloaders that filling their iPod to capacity with music would cost them $10,000, while Napster’s To Go service offers unlimited downloads to a compatible MP3 player for $15 per month.
What a bargain!
But let’s examine the history first.
Napster, of course, was the program that first brought music downloading and filesharing to the masses. Lauded by some, decried by others, the old Napster suffered legal attacks and succumbed.
But the cat had more lives to live. Napster went legit, paying copyright owners the dues they demanded.
In the intervening time, though, Apple’s iTunes service stole the limelight. The iPod became the dominant portable digital music player — for many, an MP3 player is an iPod, as a photocopier is a Xerox and a digital video recorder is a TiVo .
Some hailed the “$0.99 per song” pricing system, popularized (if not invented) by Apple, as revolutionary. It did seem the logical next step in music downloading. “If consumers want greater selection, if they want the freedom to only buy the tracks they want, here it is,” the industry seemed to say. But Napster says no.
Napster says, “Consumers don’t want to buy music at all: they want to rent it.” Napster To Go charges customers $15 per month for access; if you stop paying, guess what happens to all those songs you downloaded? Well, they’re unplayable.
Imagine: rather than buying a stereo, music lovers pay a monthly fee so their CD player continues to be able to play CDs. Stop paying the RIAA tax, and Hotel California becomes nothing more than a shiny drink coaster.
This is not to say there were no problems with iTunes: there were. But Napster To Go represents a much more extreme departure from past distribution models. Change isn’t always bad, but such a major change warrants more discussion than Napster’s promotional materials grant it.
Additionally, both Napster and iTunes, along with many other for-sale download services, package their product with Digital Rights Management, technological restrictions on the customer’s capabilities. Some of these restrictions can infringe on a customer’s fair use rights; all of them take power away from the paying customer.
Before we accept such a major shift in distribution — perhaps even more major than that which the original Napster wrought, which still relied upon “possession” of songs in some manner — we should confront the issue of if, as a culture, this is the future we want. Otherwise, it may be too late.
It’s not a radical question at all. In President Bush’s inaugural address, he promoted his desire to advance America as an “ownership society.” Do you want to be a permanent tenant in your own computer, in your media, in your culture? Or do you want to own it?
As for me, I want to right to do as I see fit with the things I purchase. I want fair use. I want an ownership society.