Perfect for music lovers - or thieves

I thought I'd give politics a rest this week, mainly to give the rest of the media a chance to catch up: to report on the resurgence in the polls of Al Gore, Dubbya's panic, the growing interest in the citizens' champion, Ralph Nader, and all the other trends you first read about here. Instead, because we are nestled between August Bank Holiday in Britain and Labor Day on Monday over here - Americans love frameworks so much that they need official notification of when their summer is over - I thought I'd turn to what has been dominating the lives of US adolescents. For them, besides all the usual things, summer 2000 has meant Napster.

Now, I know that NS readers will immediately be divided between those who know exactly what I'm talking about and those who haven't a clue: to most readers under the age of 30 and most parents of any kid from ten upwards, the very word "Napster" has a powerful ring. Others, meanwhile, will be mystified. Yet this side of the Atlantic, the word alone works up the five entertainment giants - Sony, Bertelesmann, Universal, EMI and Warner (worth a cool $250bn between them) - into a raging froth of fury. Congressmen and women earnestly discuss the merits and otherwise of Napster. The best legal minds in the country are wrestling with its ethics. And sooner or later, the old sages of the Supreme Court are likely to be ruling on - yes, Napster.

It didn't even exist until May last year, when 20-year-old Shawn Fanning wanted to devise a way that he and friends could swap songs with each other on the internet. With help, he devised a surprisingly simple computer program that now has 22 million users worldwide - a number increasing exponentially every day (and a phenomenon, when you realise that it took AOL 12 years to accrue nine million). Napsterites download the free program on to their computers; they can then log on, type in the name of a singer or song, and effectively be put in touch with millions of other, like-minded, logged-on computers. Then they start swapping songs at the current rate of 1,400 per minute - downloading and uploading, as they say.

Predictably, the big record companies are enraged that the world's youth are thus, in effect, stealing the copyrighted material that rakes in their billions - and have been to court in a so far unsuccessful, enjoyable attempt to stop Napster. I have a friend who is a lawyer involved in the case, and he told me how a group of sober-suited lawyers for the record companies had been tut-tutting to him how today's youth have no moral fibre, no integrity, no regard for law and order, and so on.

Then my friend (on Napster's side) asked one of them to identify his company's most downloaded song: "Die, you ******* ****, you ******, die", the suit had to try to intone with his dignity intact.

In January, Indiana University noticed that its computer network bandwidth had suddenly been overloaded by 20 per cent; the following month, it was struggling to cope with 60 per cent extra use because so many students were using it to swap free songs.

Now more than 160 universities have banned Napster and similar programs (including one, Freenet, from London). In July, Judge Marilyn Patel ruled that Napster was guilty of facilitating the "wholesale infringing" of copyrights, and ordered Napster to shut down at midnight - only for the company to win a last-minute reprieve, pending an appeal.

Seventy million people, it is estimated, will be using Napster by the end of 2000.

On one thing all sides privately agree: acquiring music via the internet in this way is here to stay, and no amount of judicial rulings will be able to stamp it out. For one, Napster itself does not infringe the copyrights: it merely enables people to do so with one another. (Napster's holier-than-thou attitude, someone said, is like that of the piano player in a brothel: "Do they really do that upstairs?" they ask innocently.)

But the verdict is mixed on whether the widespread use of Napster stimulates or harms sales of CDs: in the first quarter of this year, CD sales in the US actually jumped 8 per cent to 177 million.

We've heard many of the arguments before: the arrival of the gramophone resulted in uproar from sheet music publishers, who thought they would be put out of business. Jack Valenti, the legendary lobbyist for the movie industry, campaigned against video players, saying they were "as the Boston Strangler is to a woman alone". Today, videos provide a huge income for Valenti's industry.

And here comes the uniquely American slant to it all: the gleam of big bucks. What started as the brainchild of a nerdy teenager has overnight become a potential goldmine, even though it makes no money at present. But, not long ago, the venture capital firm Hummer Winblad poured $13m into it for a 20 per cent stake: Napster requires its users to register with their names and e-mail addresses and, in this way, keeps tabs on what each user wants. It thereby acquires valuable marketing data, able to know exactly how to target future buyers of gospel music, say, or jazz.

I put Napster through its paces this week by ignoring its typical fare. I thought of the most unlikely name possible, and entered "Ken Dodd". Sure enough, Napster's users were able to offer all Ken's centuries-old hits. I tried Kathleen Ferrier, and found her priceless Kindertotenlieder. Then Richter's version of "O Mensch bewein' dein' Sunde gross" from the St Matthew Passion was simply there for the taking. Pure magic.

Adolescent I may no longer be - but this Napster business, I have to say, has a lot of potential.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 04 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Cheated of their vodka and cake