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Where culture and technology are concerned, the news isn’t just news any more; it’s a chronicle of emblems. Barely a week passes without some fresh development highlighting the fact that everyday life is caught up in a riptide of change. Even those still standing timidly on the shore can see the way things are flowing: Like it or not, we are being swept into a digital world. Not, however, without some bumps along the way — as is shown by the current unresolved and highly emblematic flap over Napster.

More than any other recent cultural fad, the pioneer music-swapping Web site symbolizes both the pace of change and the generational divide it has triggered. Everyone likes music, but the ways we get it vary enormously. At one end of the spectrum are (mostly older) people who go to concerts, listen to the radio and play tapes and CDs at dinner. At the other end are (mostly younger) people who do all those things too — well, different concerts — but who also do much, much more.

Young people want to listen to music all the time. This means they want their music portable, instant and cheap. Radio, you say? Not good enough. Those reared on instant gratification also want their music customized. Hence the popularity of Walkmans, Discmans and MD and MP3 players, which deliver portability and choice. Hence also the meteoric rise of Napster, which delivers instantaneous access to a vast and growing database of music and which delivers it not just cheap, but free. From the record companies’ and artists’ point of view, the scale of use makes this an obvious form of piracy. But from a kid’s point of view, ethics doesn’t even enter into it. Where Kant said, “I ought, therefore I can,” Napster’s 22 million happy users say, “I can, therefore I’d be a total dork not to.”

The question is: How much longer can they? Last week, in a suit filed by the Recording Industry Association of America and others, a federal judge in San Francisco issued a preliminary injunction that, had it not been temporarily overturned on appeal, would have forced Napster to shut down. The reprieve will probably be brief, however. Observers expect Napster to be routed when the suit comes to trial next month; “I think [this] will end the service as we know it,” Napster CEO Hank Barry admitted last week.

“As we know it”: There’s the rub for the record companies. The upcoming ruling may end Napster-type services, which operate via access to a central-server index. But already, the Internet is swarming with alternative services that operate on a “peer-to-peer” basis; that is, there is no central server, therefore nothing to police and nothing to shut down. The RCIA may win this battle only to find the war raging on another front and its enemies multiplied tenfold.

There are two legal issues here: what is right and what is enforceable. It is hard to dispute the view that what Napster does is to enable a kind of theft. But that is surely a result of scale. On an individual level, the ethical line is fuzzier: What is the difference between sharing songs with strangers via the Internet and sharing songs with friends by taping their CDs? It comes into focus at the point where so many people start downloading free music that nobody buys CDs any more — the specter that haunts the industry. One can see how this might be construed as violating intellectual copyright, and it is impossible to imagine any court letting it continue in its present form.

The problem is that in the hyper-volatile world of digital-musical technology, “in its present form” means, at best, “good for a few months.” New ideas, generating new demands, continue to outpace social structures — in this case, both the law and the music industry itself. When the irresistible forces of demand and technological change meet the immovable object of the law, stalemate might ensue for a while but eventually something has to give. As with prohibition and antiabortion laws, it is no use legislating against the grain of popular demand. The most you achieve is to drive the banned behavior underground. And, as the Luddites could testify, no matter how just one’s short-term cause, technology always wins.

How will this work out? Nobody knows, but here are some predictions. The glorious free-for-all that is Napster will not survive. How long would it have lasted anyway, without figuring out a way to make money? But the record companies may not prosper either if they fail to recognize the warning implicit in this case: namely, that their future does not lie in litigating over traditional revenues but in cooperating over the possibilities inherent in the online market. The market is too huge and too savvy to ignore. Prices may have to drop, revenues may have to be shared, but it is in everybody’s interest here to reach an understanding. Then, maybe, law can catch up with reality.

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