Ponder, if you will, these two recent headlines:

  • The ILOVEYOU worm goes on a global rampage, self-replicating in volcanic bursts while dining on graphic and MP3 files along the way.
  • Metallica, the makers of sensitive thrash-yer-head rock, sues Napster, developers of MP3-sharing software, for copyright infringement and racketeering, and delivers — on paper, no less — the names of 330,000 Napster users who have traded Metallica files.

Now, just to test your pulse, which story appeared on the front pages and 6 o’clock news, and continues to infect your news stream a week after it happened?

If you answered the Love Bug, congratulations. You are the winner of the brand new album from Metallica or Dr. Dre, or any of the other artists that entertainment lawyer Howard King represents. To collect your prize, you know where to go. It’s yours for the taking. And tell ’em your friends at Cyberia sent you. Heh-heh.

But seriously, love hurts, doesn’t it? I just don’t know which hurts more — the actual virus or the self-replicating media virus. Of course, the distant cackle of a nefarious virus-writing hacker is a lot sexier than the flatulence of a megaselling metal band wanting its art to be seen as art and not as some mere commodity bought and sold in Wal-Mart.

And as we all know, love is a many-splendored thing. Already more vicious variants are having their way with hard disks everywhere. There are even some that are apparently able to take control of keyboard ports and force journalists to write bad puns and to add alliteration ad nauseam. You think this is some kind of a joke? Well, it is, kinda. Did you hear the one about the love-bug spinoff that disguises itself with a “Very funny” subject line, and another that pawns itself off as confirmation of your Mother’s Day gift order. Real cards, these virus scribes.

But even more seriously than before, and with feeling, the Love Bug did wreak havoc. Estimates are putting the damage at $5 billion (could someone please tell me how this is calculated?). However, by all reports, no missiles were launched, no stock markets crashed (we’ll leave that to the VCs) and the sky didn’t fall. Best of all, we have received yet another reminder of the Internet’s fragility, and how it can be exploited (you blame the hackers, I blame Microsoft).

But let’s look at the real megavirus: Napster. Indeed, the beauty of Napster, one which was immediately evident to potential investors, is its “viral” qualities. As MP3s replicate, the network grows and grows. And while the FBI can track down Spyder-like virus writers, the question that constantly arises with regard to Napster and its software relatives is: How are they going to hunt down millions of tiny servers?

A quick summary for those at the back: Napster is a distributed network application. Some call it “peer-to-peer,” though purists point out that it’s still client-to-server. At any rate, when logged into the Napster network, your hard drive becomes a server of MP3s. As you’re downloading songs from anonymous sources, other nameless server/clients are dipping into your computer. Sound scary? It is, but cheap thrills are part of the attraction. The main appeal, though, is the global library of free tunes.

I like Napster, not because it is the premier pirating tool, but because it recalls the Net’s early days of democracy (and, yes, anarchy). For a reminder, log on to a Napster network and run a search. The results resemble Gump’s box of chocolates. The files, all labeled willy-nilly, might be only portions of songs, others recorded poorly, while some might be rare B-sides and bootleg tracks.

Of course, Napster is no longer just a rec-room shareware operation. It now has an office in Silicon Valley, and its 19-year-old founder, Shawn Fanning, can be seen among BusinessWeek’s “e.biz 25,” alongside Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Yahoo!’s Tim Koogle and Softbank’s Masayoshi Son.

Napster’s high profile has also made it the most obvious target for the Recording Industry Association of America‘s attack on piracy. Should Napster’s degree of “freedom” continue unchecked? The more relevant question might be, will it continue?

The answer is definitely yes. The well-paid music biz lawyers might succeed in shutting down Napster, but there are several other players waiting in the wings. Napster isn’t the only network in the neighborhood. In addition to older networks such as Hotline, and newcomers such as iMesh and Gnutella, there is Freenet. Originally the thesis project of a London programmer, Freenet promises a totally autonomous system, a pure peer-to-peer network that would practically guarantee anonymity and the free flow of any sort of file. With no central server or office, where will Metallica deliver its lists of pirates?

While Napster’s Fanning, a college dropout, could be in for an education, his idea and software already have a huge following, not to mention support from forward-thinking musicians (Public Enemy’s Chuck D. and Limp Bizkit among them). It’s a shame that the RIAA hasn’t entered into discussions with his company to find a compromise. It is still possible. Amazingly, it was announced Monday that MP3.com, another target of RIAA’s copyright infringement suits, has entered into an agreement with the music rights organization, Broadcast Music Inc.

While writing this I couldn’t help but think of a musician friend of mine who grumbles whenever he hears mention of MP3s. This is the same friend who complained about CD printing and pressing snafus, duplicitous labels and poor distribution. Tired of the hassles, he started his own label. How are his CDs selling? I haven’t asked, but I would suggest he feel the love of the Napster virus. It’s going to mutate and grow. One way or another, it’s gonna getcha, getcha, getcha.

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