It's not often a decision about the legality of downloading a free digital track belonging to Metallica affects publishing at-large, but when the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Napster, the controversial online file sharing provider, it sparked questions about digital publishing's overall shelf life. This week's 58-page ruling requires that Napster stop trading copyrighted content online—in the U.S., at least. But whether content is downloaded for free or for a fee, the Napster debate has fueled both kudos and criticism of a system that challenges traditional content rights laws. Thanks to the music market's equivalent of Robin Hood, publishers are learning critical lessons about the pros and cons of file sharing.
According to David Dritsas, senior editor of E-Gear, "One could argue that Napster is facilitating the mass proliferation of copywritten material." Dritsas compares digital content's novelty to the proliferation of analog tapes more than a decade ago. "But in essence, the sharing of tape cassettes and recordable CDs are no different than the Napster issue," he explains. While trading files among a few friends is certainly different than hosting hits for hundreds of thousands online, copyright law's latest win still asks whether digital assets are immune to traditional protection. Publishers are questioning the manner in which they, too, distribute, store and even market textual and graphical wares. Until now, the Internet has been a portal in which little traditional legal pow wow has been practiced.
Technology afficionados argue Napster's influence on the culture of digital file exchange is positive. Due to increased awareness about the ease of exchange online, many publishers, technology companies and industry professionals have capitalized on Web procurement. Proponents of Napster argue that workflows have been made more efficient and content more accessible because of Napster-type online databasing. Within the publishing realm, not only is it easier than ever for users to exchange files, but digitization is as commonplace today within professional portals as faxing was yesterday. Sites such as Carracho and HotlineHQ not only share entertainment media, including MP3s, DVDs and e-books, but also popular software, including the latest versions of PhotoShop and Illustrator, that are ordinarily hundreds of dollars to purchase at street value.