Witness: BBC World Service – Napster

BBC World Service LogoWitness for Thursday, 11 Aug, 2011 – Napster

“Witness – history as told by the people who were there. Five days a week we will be talking to people who lived through moments of history to bring you a personal perspective on world events.”

In 2001 the music sharing website Napster was closed down.

Part of the excellent output from BBC World Service, Witness is a factual, short-form show looking at recent historical events within living memory…

The Napster episode, for example, gave a potted history of the peer-to-peer file-sharing service including an interview with Napter’s founder, Shawn Fanning.

Since the show is solely concerned with being factual and is a thumbnail sketch in limited time, there is no analysis or comment. The editorial line in this episode was strictly neutral. Witness tries – and usually fails – to avoid politics. However, the editorial team fails to grasp the impossibility of this. A failure to comment either looks like complicity or cowardice.

As good as the Napster sketch is, there is no probing of the moral or legal thinking behind Napster, which was clearly in violation of copyright law at the time, or how the founders and their backers ever thought they would run it without becoming mired in lawsuits. Was Napster just naive, aiming to break down the music industry by sheer weight of users pulling down the barricades, or just cynically assuming the industry would cave to its’ model and cut Napster in for a share of the royalties?

In the end, neither happened and Napster was closed down. Shawn Fanning is left looking disengenuous at best. AJS

Running time: 9 mins

Other recent Witness editions:

5 thoughts on “Witness: BBC World Service – Napster

  1. Dakoira Cao (@Dakoira) says:

    Just listened to this..great story! I have one comment about Lars Ulrich’s comment about how downloading music is like telling a plumber he must fix your plumbing for free. I’m sorry but what an idiot. As some one who works everyday and does not get paid for 10s of years after for the work I do today, it is not at all the same thing. It is hard to feel sorry for musicians who make tens of thousands of dollars off of 1 song that they produced in some few hours of work. OK I appreciate it, but is the value of it really worth getting paid each and every time it is played or purchased?? I would love if the work I do today is paid for again and again for the next 50 years, and perhaps Mr. Ulrich’s plumber should demand that he pay for the work he did in his house every time he flushes the toilet.

    • Allan J. Smithie says:

      Dakoira: It does illustrate what many people have been saying for years: the music industry needs to return to its’ traditional business model. I find all these metaphors and justifications specious.

      Mr Ulrich is in that generation which got huge royalties from record sales based on physical media, in an artificial market of ephemeral products that has had it’s time and is dying. In former times, from the medieval minstrel to the music hall star, the money came from performing, where fortunes could be made by virtue of talent and the live stage experience being the only medium. Certainly vinyl and CD’s brought music to many more people wanting music on-demand, but these are artificial media, incidental to the creative act. It is not how a musician’s ‘living’ was ever derived in the previous 40,000 years of music.

      Metallica is among the big league bands that can make fortunes from touring and so should count themselves lucky. Most recording artists shifted small numbers of expensive vinyl and CD’s, most consider them were promotional items that might become a revenue stream in the event of that lucky break of chart success. Professional musicians go out and play to audiences. Recordings are only worth what you can get for TV and radio royalties, for as long as you can get them.

      Downloads and file sharing won’t go away. There is no scarcity of computer data bits. I don’t blame artists and record companies for trying to hang on to this outdated revenue model, it’s ‘a nice little earner,’ thank you very much. However, there is no automatic entitlement, just as there’s no ‘job for life’ for the rest of us. The market that artificially inflated their incomes is going the way of the buggy-whip. Time to come back to the real world. AJS

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