Ready Or Not, MP3s Are Here To Stay
By Eunjoe Ahn
As florists became savvier, they began to call their fake flowers "permanent flowers-they never wilt or die!" in an effort to make them sound more appealing. So it is that Napster and programs like it don't call themselves music pirates, but music sharers and music communities.

I am sure that by now, all of you have heard of Amherst's decision to ban Napster from the Amherst network. Some, I am also sure, are upset about this. Know at least that the reason behind this banning is not moral, but practical. However inconvenient it may be for us, the students, it is reasonable on the College's part to stop one site from taking up 50 percent of its rather generous bandwidth. Trust me, there will always be other sources. At my old high school, where we operated on a T1 line, we had the same problem-it was caused not by the fact that students were downloading MP3s, but because they left MP3 sharing programs on nearly 24-7, allowing other members of the "MP3 community" to download songs from their computers and the school's network in massive quantities. My high school, Amherst, and many other colleges across the nation may also want to avoid being implicated in a matter of questionable legality.

But more than the question of "to ban or not to ban," I am interested in the issue of Napster itself. So as not to be negligent, let me briefly explain what Napster is: a program, supported by a group of computers called "servers", which can be downloaded at absolutely no cost and allows users to share any and all of their MP3s (music files, easily copied from CDs with free software, known as "ripping" from CDs).

Is it wrong? Perhaps. Music, just like books and articles, is intellectual property. The reproduction and distribution of music without the consent of the composer is intellectual theft. The lawyers suing Napster call this "copyright violation." In my most righteous moods, I have an (overly dramatized, no doubt) scenario in my head where I, with the help of a giant machine, am pulling an MP3 from the weak clutches of a sobbing musician. Or, perhaps, tiptoeing out of a dark computer room with a ski mask on my head and a bulging bag labeled "MP3s" over my shoulder. If you were a musician, and had produced a work you were very proud of and had spent many sleepless nights over, and then found that this song was being spread among your "fans" at an alarming rate, completely regardless of your rights and feelings as creator, how would you then react? Some of you, I think, would be genuinely happy that so many people were enjoying your music. But others, I presume to say, would be rather indignant.

Then again, the profit being made off this enterprise comes not from the distribution of free MP3s, but from stock market speculation by those who believe Napster will become a successful business in the future and consider it a good investment. Is this not the same, then, as copying songs off tapes, CDs, or the radio and handing them out to friends? Nobody complains about the devices that facilitate this copying-at least not anymore. When the double-deck tape recorder first came out, music companies sued it as a device that made possible the copying and distributing of music for free. As we can see today, though, they were not successful.

MP3s are in many ways very similar to these dubs-you can make a copy of the desired music for free, but sacrifice some quality and the pretty inserts that come with commercial tapes and CDs. The companies that manage our beloved musicians' work are the ones complaining loudest, but actually, the sale of CDs has gone up since the appearance of programs like Napster, though this could be coincidence.

But artists themselves make little from CDs, profiting more from concerts and other live appearances. My hunch is that MP3s will actually help the sale of CDs and concerts, much as radio did. We are not stealing-we are merely enjoying music. What's the big deal?

Still, I feel a little guilty about my own MP3 collection. While my analogy of MP3s to more conventional methods of copying music is valid, it assumes that it's all right to hurt the corporations that manage musicians-who really likes them anyway? Perhaps this is only an attempt to rationalize something that, in the end, is not right. This could be because the idea of MP3s is not commonplace yet-after all, I never felt guilty about copying my favorite songs off the radio. MP3s come from sources that, ultimately, were bought fair and square, just as a musical group is paid every time their songs play on the air.

The question of the legality of Napster will be settled in the courts within the coming months. But whatever they decide, and whatever the ethical issues, MP3s are here to stay.

Eunjoe Ahn is a member of the Class of 2004.

Issue 02, Submitted 2000-09-13 15:55:10