do new applications for telecommunications come from, and how do they get
started? How do we alleviate the
problem of server congestion in the Internet?
What happens when perfect digital copying raises the fears of holders of
intellectual property? Fascinating
questions, and that’s why I want to talk about Napster.
course, talking about Napster is a risk. Many
readers will say, “Huh?” Then
again, by the time this is printed, Napster may have been vaporized by legal
proceedings. Even mentioning the
name in print seems to raise the specter of a suit these days.
But make no mistake, Napster is an idea that brings together some of
today’s most important technical, legal, and ethical questions.
the uninitiated, Napster is a website that maintains a centralized database of
all the MP3 song files on the hard drives of its current users.
Users can search this directory for a song that they want, see a listing
of other users who have that song, and then be connected directly for a download
of that song from that other user. It
works like magic, and is so addictive that Napster traffic has clogged the local
area networks throughout the colleges and universities.
Napster came into existence late last year people acquired MP3 music files by
going to search engines like Lycos, which returned links to servers with the
desired files. Unfortunately, those
servers were invariably clogged, had different access rules, and were often
unavailable. Napster changed all
that. Early this year Napster’s
aggregated listing would typically contain about one million song titles.
On any song that would be even faintly popular, a user might have a
choice of a hundred other users from whom to obtain the download.
Speed and availability would be listed for every such user, and download
would be easy and immediate.
a technical architecture standpoint, Napster is elegant and innovative.
Its functionality spreads like a virus, making every infected user a
server for every other user -- the more users, the more servers, the more songs,
and the more power. There are no bottlenecks, because there are no central
servers for downloads. Moreover,
contrary to every planning assumption in the design of networks, the traffic in
Napster is symmetric – upstream and downstream traffics are equal on average.
rise of Napster seems to have defied Metcalfe’s Law, which says that the value
of a network increases as the square of the number of users.
A networked service like Napster only has great value when there are
there are many users. If there are only a few users, it has little value.
So how does such a service ever acquire a lot of users in the first
Law stopped the early videophones in their tracks and slowed the spread of
facsimile for more than a decade, but Napster burst through in about two months,
achieving nearly spontaneous combustion. It seems that Napster had such great value to its users that
it could attract them even in its infancy when there were few songs and places
to download them from. Moreover, in
both the videophone and facsimile, you had to have some pre-existing
relationship with specific other users. In
Napster you don’t care who the other users are; you simply want their files,
and the central directory tells you who has the files you want.
does such an ingenious idea come from? Well,
of course, not from the establishment. In this case it’s a nineteen-year-old student.
Personally, I never cease to be amazed as I go around to telecom industry
meetings to hear about the new platforms that will facilitate the creation of
new value-added services. What
services, people ask? Well, no one
in the industry seems to have a clue. In
reality they seem to arise out of the woodwork from neophytes who have been
empowered by the new technology. For
all I know, maybe it’s the aliens again, chuckling to themselves as they
inject yet another unsuspected application into the earthling culture.
question that I keep asking myself, however, is this: is it only the existence
of copyrighted music files that makes Napster possible?
Could I conceive of such a model in the absence of this compelling
content? Except for movies, now
requiring more bandwidth than is commonly available, I think not.
The question is relevant because, of course, the recording industry and
several bands are suing to put Napster out of existence.
The problem for the music industry is that it is stuck in a business
model of selling virtual content – bits – based on a physical package.
Yet clearly the day of “digital ubiquity” is near, when any music can
be streamed to your player on demand. Why,
people ask, should anyone then collect the CD packages when the bits are always
available at your fingertips?
neither a young person nor a member of the music industry, I can watch the
battle from afar with fascination. If
and when Napster is put out of business by the courts, other ideas like in wait.
For example, there is a system called Gnutella that works like Napster
without a central directory. Instead,
it uses the principle of the six degrees of separation between you and the song
you want. Your computer asks nearby
computers for that song, who then ask their nearby computers, etc., until some
computer is found with your song. In
Gnutella, there is no central entity to sue, only the legion of individual
instinctive reaction of the incumbent intellectual property owners when
confronted by a new technology that threatens their hegemony is to stop the
technology. The entertainment
industry failed in their attempt to stop the VCR, and then subsequently made
more money from the VCR than from movies in theaters.
On the other hand, the same industry was mostly successful in stopping
the introduction of Digital Audio Tape into the United States.
Napster battle will be fought in the courts on narrow legal grounds.
No one seems to be asking what model is best for the artists or for the
consumers in this era of perfect digital copying and distribution.
It seems in this case that MP3 caught the music industry unprepared, but
the ethical issues have caught us all unprepared.
Technology has once again roared ahead of the consideration of its social
consequences. While we sort this
all out, I’m afraid that the music is on hold.