In the United States, Internet-based music swapping has already had its heyday. Sure, it’s still going on, pushed underground by lawsuits and enforcement actions. But never again will it enjoy the kind of glamorous prominence it enjoyed just a short while ago, when Napster was the coolest thing since eight-track tapes.
On the other hand, music pirates can take comfort in knowing that if they truly need a fix, they can just pack up their portable and head to Amsterdam.
Last week, a Dutch court ruled that technology firm Kazaa has the right to distribute a software program designed to let users share music and movie files over the Web.
The ruling flies in the face of most U.S. legal rulings on music piracy. In the United States, musicians and record labels have won round after round in the legal boxing match.
The Dutch court, however, took a typically Dutch approach. Kazaa isn’t responsible, it said, for what people do with its product, meaning the record labels’ argument that the software is only good for pirating copyrighted music fell on deaf ears.
But the ruling did more than just keep a software program on the market. It struck a blow for freedom, for the type of online freedom that once characterized the Internet.
It’s not surprising that a Dutch court would take such a step. Amsterdam is already a hedonist’s paradise, where substances and activities illegal in the United States and almost every other Western nation are permitted on the basis of individual freedom and the idea that the cost of enforcing restrictive laws outweighs their benefit to society.
Back in the U.S.A.
Meanwhile, back at home, music pirates are true pirates once again, no longer hip and revered. A running gag in the Doonesbury comic strip notwithstanding, the cultural phenomenon of file swapping is but a memory.
Now, with another legal setback to contend with, the odds look good that Napster will remain on the shelf for a long, long time. It may even wither and die there, and fans certainly won’t flock back to it when and if it does relaunch. The Napster name has become a parody of sorts, a pale imitation of the original.
Meanwhile, it feels as if the Web is shrinking, tightening around those of us who have been online for a while. In fact, one researcher said the Internet did shrink in 2001, with fewer Web pages online than in 2000.
But the real issue is a lack of Internet freedom. Whatever you think of music file swapping, being able to do it made the Web feel like the Wild West — open and free, as limitless as the Montana sky.
And in some parts of the world, it still is. So, are we heading for another digital divide, in which one country’s laws result in a corporate-friendly but user-hostile online environment?
World Narrow Web
For all the talk of a World Wide Web, that might be the case. Setting aside the enforcement nightmare created by a global patchwork of laws and customs, it just isn’t what the Web was supposed to be about.
The Dutch have all the fun. In the United States, the land of the free, the Internet is starting to look more and more like the local mall, where loiterers are moved along by security guards and all the windows are dressed up nice and pretty for passersby.
What do you think? Let’s talk about it.
Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.