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Populist Power Tools

Purveyors of “content” take heed: Knowledge will not remain a shrink-wrapped commodity.
January 1, 2001

I was riveted by the legal showdown over the song-swapping software Napster even before those Metallica millionaires started carping about losing their livelihood and their disgruntled fans began smashing CDs in protest. Beyond the drama, rhetoric and legal verdicts, I’ve become convinced the Napster case represents a transformative historical moment.

The way I see it, some 38 million Napster users toppled a central held-over fallacy from the Old Economy: that knowledge can comfortably be treated as a commodity. Let’s face it. With populist power tools like Napster, digitized knowledge simply will not remain shrink-wrapped.

In this sense, the take-home message about Napster was evident long before the deal it struck last November with media giant Bertelsmann AG, in which it agreed to charge users a subscription fee and share the profits. Such settlements aside, and no matter how pending lawsuits come out, the really big story is that grassroots file sharing is here to stay. In an economy increasingly driven by knowledge-intensive, “content-providing” industries from software to Hollywood, the implications are even bigger than, well, Britney Spears. Little wonder that EMI executive Jay Samit has warned that the highly centralized music industry is merely “the canary down the digital mineshaft.”

Known as peer-to-peer, or P2P software, grassroots networks like Napster, Gnutella and Freenet will keep expanding. Like so much of the New Economy’s best, these systems feed off the decentralized power of the network itself. They allow users discretion to seek information from others as well as to pass around whatever information they possess. Even with these first-generation P2P tools, we can no more hope to keep a centralized rein on copyrighted material than the old Soviet regime could hope to control publishing by preventing access to copiers. Call them pirates, but Napster users perceive a bounty out there and view their system as an empowering way to share it-much like a turbocharged public library.

Ironically, especially in light of Napster’s new subscription fee, the essentially noncommercial “sharing” quality of P2P systems is precisely what makes them so threatening to knowledge-intensive industries. It is also what makes the Napster phenomenon so fascinating: We stand deadlocked between two unworkable systems. The penchant of the P2P principals to freely share music includes no way to compensate the innovators who create content. Meanwhile, record labels are belatedly trying to add digital watermarks and other security features to recordings as they watch their intellectual property leach away. In a P2P world, these efforts are doomed as long as the industry insists on treating its wares like tangible packaged goods.

Perhaps most fascinating of all is how many smart people seem determined to willfully resist the central lesson of Napster. Their argument seems to be that exchanging songs via Napster is no different than stealing a stereo or guitar because both the songs and the physical items are the result of knowledge work. (See “Your Work Is Mine!” TR November/December 2000.)

All may spring from human labors, but maddening though it may be, new technologies like Napster force us to see just how different a Metallica song really is from any physical product. P2P systems like Napster powerfully exploit the fact that knowledge can be replicated without being depleted-unlike guitars, stereos, jackets and cars. In so doing, these systems use brute force to highlight the inescapable sense that the zero-sum calculus of the Old Economy is insupportable when the marginal cost of producing-or reproducing-something drops close to zero.

This emerging view extends far beyond Napster. We see it in software, as open-source programming gains ground despite a shaky economic foundation. We see it even in pharmaceuticals, as pressure mounts for firms to make drugs more widely available to Third World patients. To some extent, perhaps, our new capabilities to share knowledge compel us to find better ways to do so. In the end, this could explain Napster’s broad appeal and stand as its most lasting legacy. It’s not so much the old cry “information wants to be free,” but rather a growing sense that it is impractical, unpalatable-maybe even unethical-to lock up the fruits of the knowledge economy when it costs virtually nothing to share them.

Only when we stop fighting this boundless-but-problematic aspect of the New Economy can we begin to constructively address it. P2P systems present us with truly revolutionary ways to share art, ideas and know-how. Moving out of the largely unedifying courtroom quagmire, the real question is: How can we best take advantage of these populist power tools while continuing to nurture an innovation-driven economy?

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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