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Break the i-music impasse

Napster may die while Scour is reborn.

I’m not going to pretend to know what will happen to the practice of music swapping on the Net. But like most of you who man the wires for the latest news on the digital revolution, I’m on pins and nettles about the pending Napster ruling. As a news story on our site this morning describes, the Ninth Circuit federal appellate court in San Francisco is set to issue its ruling on whether Napster will be shut down as ruled by U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel last July, or be allowed to continue operations.

I’m also not going to rehash all the issues and players in this very complex battle for intellectual real estate on the Web. I’ll just assume you have a working knowledge of that. What I want to do instead is offer some hope that the many armies in the battle realize that continuing to dig in will only result in missed opportunities.

As the story explains, Napster is in the process of retooling under the watchful eye of its partner Bertelsmann–the German owner of bulk music provider BMG. Sometime this summer, it will relaunch a retooled version of the service that provides the kind of user accountability that the recording industry wants. To shut down Napster now would undercut those efforts, resulting in a huge lost opportunity for users, of course, but also for the recording industry and musicians, which would benefit greatly from the free marketing resource that is the digital music community.

Users, for their part, are entrenched in the notion that they will not pay for digital music, whether on a per-use or subscription basis. As another story on our site today reveals, even Keith Halasy, corporate marketing director for CenterSpan–Scour’s owner–is not overly optimistic that pay-for-use will work. His company will relaunch Scour in March as a public beta with all the conditions the recording industry wants, and the grand experiment in digital music accountability will begin.

But message boards on CenterSpan’s site indicate that at least the most vocal users will not bother with accountability. I say OK then, don’t use digital music. It’s your lost opportunity. Those who see some redeeming quality in swapping and burning legal free music on Scour will find enough there to augment their CD collections. Combine this with community interaction with like-minded music mavens, and the service may be worth a subscription. At least it’s an attempt to try to break the impasse between the zero-tolerance folks at the recording industry and the users who believe that copyright does not apply to the Internet.

James Mathewson is editorial director of and ComputerUser magazine.

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