The End of the Line for Royalties?

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Chevelle Wiseman downloades music from song-swapping service Napster

File-swapping, like rock 'n' roll, may never die, but Napster — and the copyright law that's killing it — is in serious trouble.

Displaying the judicial impatience usually provoked by recalcitrant technology companies, Judge Marilyn H. Patel on Tuesday gave Napster 72 hours to put up — with a filter that actually works — or be shut down.

Because the name of this game is customer base — the size of a swap meet being its primary virtue — Napster will do what it takes to beat the gavel and stay alive as a brand and as a destination. And with 60-odd million registered users, Napster is heading into purgatory with a pretty strong hand. But technophile record collectors don't seem the kind of folks to hang around patiently until June just so BMG can start taking their money. Not when there's free milk to be had elsewhere.

Because file-swapping, like nature, seems destined to always find a way. Because decentralized operations like Aimster, BearShare and Gnutella don't have Napster's tragic flaw — those 12 central servers — they're legally bulletproof.

In fact, the next few months could be remembered as the last wheeze of 20th-century copyright law.

Whom, then, will the artists complain to? They're still the injured party — even label babies like Britney Spears have a moral claim on the music they make — but next time, instead of scolding their own fans, the next Metallica might want to take their beef to the record companies themselves.

After all, when music can be slathered around at this speed and scale with the click of a mouse (and at the low, low price of free), the Big Five record labels are starting to look positively negligent. They might as well have taken all that precious copyrighted music they invested so much time and money in, and left it out on the curb with the recycling. In the language of the playground: finders keepers, losers weepers.

The Big Five are of course sympathetic — it's their investment too. But legal whack-a-mole is not a business model, and the laws of physics would seem to prevent the encryption of sound. Which means the future of music may end up looking a lot like an infinitely large FM radio — free, demand-based and advertiser-supported.

Kind of like the rest of the Internet.

Take, say, web writers. We don't get royalties. We get a salary and our masters sell ads. And if a reader likes a column enough to pass copies around to all their friends, heck — none of us bats an eye. The more the merrier is the name of the game — we don't care how readers get ahold of the stuff, as long as you remember our name and look at our ads.

That, of course, is what the technophiliacs have been telling us all along. Data, whether it's words, music or movies, will inevitably run like water, whether The Man likes it or not — a born-free marketplace where the keys to making money are eyeballs, market share and ease of use. Record labels will be no more than an arm of big media companies (oops — they already are) and musicians will be content providers, recording music solely to lure people to their concert tours.

It has a nice retro feel to it, this revolution; very Woodstock. But I think I know why Metallica was so upset — take it from me, none of us content providers live much like rock stars.