The New Napster
The kids at Free Culture have an interesting rant about the new Napster service as seen on ads during the Superbowl last week. Basically, Napster allows you to download thousands of songs onto your MP3 player at just a fraction of the price it would cost to do so on your iPod. What's the catch? That you no longer own your music--you're renting it.
Historically, the public has been the beneficiary of what's called the First Sale Doctrine. That means that once you've bought a book, you can do whatever you want with it--read it, re-read it, use it prop open a window, sell it, or even burn it. The only thing you can't do is copy it. That's what a copy-right is. The First Sale Doctrine is also why we can have things like libraries and used record stores.
With the advent of digital rights management (DRM) technology, and with the help of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), copyright owners have been able to effectively limit your First Sale rights by blocking access and copying through technological means. This is why you can download music onto your iPod, but you can't upload it onto your computer, for example. And with the help of the DMCA, the hacks that let you do so are illegal.
All of this may seem well and good--after all folks do deserve to protect their copyrighted works, but the decline of the First Sale Doctrine is bad news for the dissemination of expressive work and our collective cultural expression. If you doubt this, go rent High Fidelity, and pay close attention to the scene about making mixed tapes.
While even the iPod uses DRM to limit your ability to share your 99 cent songs with your friends, Napster's service pushes DRM to an extreme. Once you stop subscribing, the music is gone.