Exactly how many lives does Napster Inc. have? The "Napster phenomenon" has graduated from a digital culture story to headline news. Napster avoided its date with the hangman in July by getting the "5-minutes-to-midnight-call from the governor" in the form of an appellate court stay on the injunction that would have effectively shut down the company.
The appellate court will soon review the matter and Napster is pleading for its corporate life, while the Recording Industry Association of America Inc. (RIAA) is explaining why Napster must be stopped.
The alt magazine 2600, aimed at hackers, gearheads, and the technically curious, is setting court dates as well. The magazine, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), has been enjoined from hyperlinking to sites that provide the DeCSS, which is used to decrypt DVDs' content scrambling system. DeCSS gave Linux users the ability to play DVD movies on their Linux boxes -- and also rendered the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA's) paltry anti-piracy system as useful as a cardboard bank vault. The MPAA has won the current round of legal fights under the DMCA, but this fight will continue until the Supreme Court has its say in the matter.
These battles are just early skirmishes in the revolution. In 2000, the skirmishes that will define digital life in the 21st century are just starting.
On one hand we have corporate megaliths, so paranoid and desperate to protect their billions that they'll gleefully give away our freedoms. Just so long as the trains run on time -- and everybody pays for their ticket.
On the other hand, we have youth and all it entails -- the rules don't apply to me, somebody else will pay for this, I'm the center of the universe, aren't I?
These kidnapsters -- the kids that gut-punch entire industries with applications such as Napster -- are staging a revolution whether we like it or not.
The zeal with which companies are fighting Napster and DeCSS is astonishing. I wonder when the MPAA will call it a violation of your DVD license to quote movie lines to friends. More seriously, I wonder how far away we are from making the very act of installing something like DeCSS or Napster illegal. Drop the PC and up against the wall. Welcome to the New Drug War.
I'm also troubled by the other side's contempt for intellectual property. The attitude, "They're a bunch of corporate crooks, so why shouldn't I steal from them?" is human, and dangerous. As we put more potent technologies in everyone's hands, what will happen in 20 years with genetics, nanotechnology, and fabulously powerful computers? Watch out: Tomorrow's kidnapster is remapping the human genome in his basement.
It's inevitable that new ways of doing business will evolve -- ways we can scarcely believe will be viable right now. I suspect digital content, like music, will be distributed with little protection in place at a price point so low that piracy won't be attractive. If the price to own a single song that interests me is $5.99, odds are slim that I'll buy it. If the price is 25 cents, 50 of my like-minded friends and I will opt for the convenient and legal distribution channel. Make it convenient and cheap and people's basic honesty will surface -- I hope.
Although I don't have the answers to all the troubling questions Napster or DeCSS bring up, I'll tell you where I think the next big upheaval will be: broadcast television. Personal digital recorders -- those VCR-like devices which use fat hard drives for storage -- promise a lot of convenience. Play programming when you want, never rewind or fast forward, and pause a show while you watch it. But I'm waiting for some clever kidnapster to write a program for a Tivo or Replay TV device that recognizes the commercials and edits them out.
Hit a single "commercials off" button and watch Survivor almost live -- and completely without the advertising -- and there goes the network television business model out the window.
We must face the consequences of inevitable change. For some that means adapting business to new realities. For others that means making responsible choices for how to use technology. Let's hope the two meet soon.
Sean Dugan is senior research editor at InfoWorld. Send him e-mail at email@example.com.