Are High-Tech CEOs Too Big for Their Britches?

Last Thursday, Indiana University joined Yale University in banning the popular Napster site because of concerns about possible copyright infringement.

This action comes on the heels of heavy metal rock band Metallica’s accusation that the universities and the makers of popular music-sharing Internet software were guilty of copyright infringement and racketeering.

The San Francisco, California-based rock band filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles alleging that the San Mateo, California-based Napster, the University of Southern California (USC), Yale University and Indiana University encouraged users of Napster software to trade copyrighted material without the band’s permission.

The Napster software allows Internet users to search for and swap music directly from hard drive to hard drive. The music is stored in a digital format known as MP3.

Suit Alleges Universities Allowed Piracy

Metallica alleges that the universities allowed piracy of copyrighted songs to flourish by failing to block access to the Napster sharing program, and thereby violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

“We take our craft — whether it be the music, the lyrics, or the photos and artwork — very seriously, as do most artists,” Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich said in a statement published on the Elektra Records Web site. “It is therefore sickening to know that our art is being traded like a commodity rather than the art that it is.”

In response, Napster CEO Eileen Richardson inexplicably told the Wall Street Journal that her company regrets “that the band’s management saw fit to issue a press release — and to file a lawsuit — without even attempting to contact Napster.” She went on to say that “if these people insist on turning it over to lawyers, we’ll defend the case on that turf.”

Student Group Turns on Napster

Meanwhile, an even more significant blow against Napster occurred when Students Against University Censorship (SAUC) announced that it would no longer support the company’s software for “knowingly facilitating the transmission of copyrighted material.”

Quickly, responding to the group’s action, Napster once again resorted to nonsensical blather.

“We are heartened to know that some of our avid core users take the issue of copyright infringement seriously,” Richardson said in a statement. “We do too. While we have no affiliation with SAUC, we hope that the group’s lobbying on this issue and their willingness to speak out will help reinforce to our users their obligation to use the Internet responsibly.”

While I am certainly glad to see that at least two universities seem to understand the value of preserving copyrights, it is disheartening to hear such doublespeak coming from Napster.

Napster’s Response Sets Off Alarms

It is also refreshing that some students have taken up the fight against such piracy, making it impossible to paint every young person as someone who is willing to use Napster to rip off their favorite artists.

Still, the unrepentant smugness of the company’s CEO continues to appall me. Richardson persists in asking us to believe that Napster is somehow a misunderstood victim that bears no moral responsibility whatsoever for the piracy its software makes possible.

Page Out of DoubleClick’s Book

If I didn’t know better, I would bet that Richardson and DoubleClick CEO Kevin O’Connor graduated from the same MBA program. After all, these twin towers of legerdemain seem unwilling to accept responsibility for their very public blunders, and constantly attempt to confuse the public with circuitous arguments and measured responses.

DoubleClick, which was hung out to dry when it attempted to combine offline and online user information without express written consent from the consumer, has offered only a lame assurance that it would wait until an agreement is forged between “industry and the government” before proceeding with its efforts. In the meantime, the company has projected that same “dazed and bewildered” attitude, suggesting that the forceful public backlash is somehow unjust and unwarranted.

Sure, some of these high-tech CEOs control vast resources and important technology, but the media and the public need to keep them accountable. After all, some of these people sound an awful lot like the leaders of another industry that was allowed a free pass for way too long — and Big Tobacco is not done yet.

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