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Eighteen – year old Shawn “NAPSTER” Fanning, then a freshman at Northeastern University, dropped out of school and founded Napster Inc. (website was at in San Mateo, California in May 1999.  Two months earlier, working in his college dorm room, he had developed both a website that let users locate other users who were willing to share whatever music files they had in MP3 format on the hard drives of their computers and a software program (called “Napster) that let users copy these music files from each other over the Internet.  When an early free version of the program he posted on received more than 300,000 hits and was named “Download of the week,” he decided to devote himself full time to developing his program and website.  The final version of his version of his program was officially released August 1999, and in May 2000, with more than 10 million people – most of them students on college campuses where Napster was especially popular – signed up at its website, Shawn’s company received $ 15 million of start – up funds from venture capital firms in California’s “Silicon Valley.”

Fanning grew up in Brockton, Massauchettes, the son of a nurse’s aid and the stepson of a truck driver, in a family of four half-brothers and half-sisters. He got the nickname “Napster” during a basketball game when a player commented on his closely cropped sweaty head of hair.  Fanning had taught himself programming and had held several summer programming jobs.

The company Shawn helped establish gave the Napster program away for free and charged users nothing to use its website to post the URL addresses where personal copies of music could be downloaded.  Nevertheless, a month later, Shawn found himself embroiled in a legal and ethical controversy when two record tables, two musicians (Metallica and Dr. Dre), and two industry trade groups of music companies (the National Music Publishers Association and the Recording Industry Association of America) filed suits against his young company claiming that Napster’s software was enabling other to make and distribute copies of copyrighted music that the musicians and companies owned.

On June 12, the two industry trade groups filed preliminary injunctions against the company demanding that it remove all the songs owned by their member companies from Napster’s song directories.  According to the two groups, a survey of 2555 college students showed a correlation between Napster use and decreased CD purchases.  College students were outraged, especially fans of Metallica and Dr. Dre. Supporters of Napster argued that Napster allowed people to hear music that they then went out and purchased, so Napster actually helped the music companies.  Music sales had increased by over $500 million a year since Napster had started to operate, but the music companies claimed that this was a result of a booming economy.  Supporters of Napster also argued that individuals had a moral and legal right to lend other individuals a copy of the music on the CDs that they had purchased.  After all, they argued, the law explicitly stated that an individual could make a copy of copyrighted music he or she had purchased to hear the music on another player.  Moreover, according to Fanning, Napster was not doing anything illegal, and the company was not responsible if other people used its software and website to copy music in violation of copyright law any more than a car company was responsible when its autos were used by thieves to rob banks.  Much of the music that was downloaded using Napster, they claimed, was in the public domain (i.e.not legally owned by anyone) and was being legally copied.  The music companies countered that an individual had no right to give multiple copies of their music to others even if the individual had paid for the original CD.  If everyone was allowed to copy music without paying for it, they charged, eventually the music companies would stop producing music and musicians would stop creating it.  Other musicians claimed, however, that Napster and the Web gave them a way to put their music before millions of potential fans without having to beg the music companies to sponser them.

In March 2000, the band Metallica hired consultant PDNet to electronically “evesdrop” on users who assumed they were anonymously accessing Napster’s website.  The following week the band’s lawyers handed Napster a list with the names of 300, 000 people that Metallica claimed had violated its copyrights using Napster’s service and that Metallica now wanted removed from Napster’s services.  Fanning complied with the demand of Metallica, whose drummer, Lars Ulrich, was one of his musical heros.  “If they want to steal our music,” said Ulrich, “ why don’t they just go down to Tower Records and grab them off the shelves ?”  Many young people protested that the bands should not be alienating their own fans in this way.  One fan posted a note on an MP3 chat room : “Give me a break !  I have been dropping 16 bucks an album for Metallica’s music since I was a teenager.  They made a fortune off us and now they accuse us of stealing from them.  What nerve !”  Howard King, a Los Angeles lawyer for Metallica and Dr. Dre, stated that “I don’t know Shawn Fanning but he seems to be a pretty good kid who came up with a sensational program.  But this sensational program has allowed people to take music without paying ………Shawn probably had no idea of the legal ramifications of what he created.  I’m sure the though never crossed his mind.”

In August 2000, a federal judge in San Francisco, Marilyn Patel, responded to the suit against Napster.  Judge Patel called Shawn’s company a “monster” and charged that the only purpose of Napster was to copy pirated music without paying for it.  The judge ordered Napster to remove all URLS from its website that referenced material that was copyrighted.

Judge Patel’s ruling would have shut down the company’s website immediately.  But a few days later, an appeals court reversed Judge Patel and allowed the company to continue operating.  The reprieve was only temporary.  On Monday February 12, 2001, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco affirmed Judge Patel’s ruling.  The company attempted to circumvent the ruling by negotiating agreements with the music companies that would pay them certain annual fees in return for withdrawing the suit.

Napster was not the only software that allowed individuals to swap files from

One personal computer to another over the Internet.  The software program named “Gnutella”  let individuals swap any kind of files – music, text, or visuals – over the Internet, but Gnutella did not operate a centralized index like the website that Napster had established.  Observers predicated that if Napster was put out of business, numerous underground websites would be created providing the kind of listing service that the company had earlier provided on its website.  Already a website named provided free copies of Gnutella and many other Napster clones that users could download and use to share digital music files with each other.  Unlike Napster, these software products did not require a central website to connect users to each other, making it impossible for music companies to find and target single entity whom they could sue.  Many observers predicated that Napster was only the beginning of an upheaval that would revolutionize the music industry, forcing music companies to lower their prices, make their music easily available on the Internet, and completely change their business models.


Questions :

  1. What are the legal issues involved in this case, and what are the moral issues ? How are the two different kinds of issues different    from each other, and how are they related to each other ? Identify and distinguish the “systemic, corporate and individual issues” involved in this case.  
  1. In your judgment, was it morally wrong for Shawn Fanning to develop and release his technology to the world given its possible consequences ? Was it   morally wrong for an individual to use Napster’s website and software to copy   for free the copy righted music on another person’s hard drive ? If you believe it was wrong, then explain exactly why it was wrong.  If you believe it was not morally wrong, then how would you defend your views against the claim that such copying is stealing ?  Assume that it was not I  illegal for an individual to copy music using Napster. Would there be anything immoral with doing so ?  Explain ?
  1. Assume that it is morally wrong for a person to use Napster’s website and software to make a copy of copyrighted music.  Who, then, would be morally responsible for this person’s wrong doing ?  Would only the person himself be morally responsible ?  Was Napster, the company, morally responsible ? Wash shawn Fanning   morally responsible ?  Was any employee of Napster, the company, morally responsible ?  Was the operator of the server or that portion of the Internet that the person used morally responsible ?  What if the person did not know that the music was copyrighted or did not   think that it was illegal to copy copyrighted music ?
  1. Do the music companies share any of the moral responsibility for what has  happened ?  How do you think technology like Napster is likely to  change the music industry ?  In your judgment, are these changes ethically good or ethically bad ?



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