Elvis as a Distributed Algorithm

Today, Napster* and the imminent demise (I desperately hope) of the entire entertainment industry.

You probably know about Napster, which is software that lets people exchange music over the Internet. It was invented by this mere kid named Shawn Fanning, who was something like nineteen years old, or twelve, or at any rate barely more than a zygote. Pretty smart zygote, howsomever.

Apparently he was sitting around one day, scratching and thinking about girls, and said to himself, “I guess I’ll write a music-sharing program that will explode across the entire earth like a squeezed grape, make all known music available to everyone everywhere for free, drive the recording industry into the gibbering apoplectic heebeejeebees, spawn massive lawsuits, and have teenagers everywhere shrieking for DSL, which their parents don’t know what is. Or else I could go to the mall and hang out.”

He wrote the code. It worked. In a few months, without federal help, 32,000,000 people (so help me, I think that’s the real number) had signed up, and every night many of them were online across the whole earth, gobbling music. Napster had stood the world on its end, which is hard to do with a sphere.

A zygote did this. What’s he gonna do when he’s big?

But first you gotta under stand what Napster really is. The language will be graphic, but we’re all adults here. You probably ought to send little children to bed.

Napster is a file-sharing system.

“Why, Fred,” you say. “That’s fascinating. Like sorting socks.” Well, OK, Manila folders are more exciting.

Practically, however, Napster is, or was, amazing: Tower Records in the Sky, open twenty-four hours, with all the music free. If you typed “Jailhouse Rock” into the little search thingy on Napster, you got a list of computers around the world that had it on their hard drives. You clicked on one of them, and — Hooo-eeee! — Elvis His Own Self poured into your hard drive, sloosh. Then, if you were a teenager, you burned it onto a CD. Bingo. You had just stolen Elvis, which is slick because he is actually dead, and taken New York out of the loop. Putting it differently, New York is now a distributed condition.

The recording industry got no end upset, and pretended to see Napster in moral terms: The theft of music owned by others. Actually the industry wouldn’t know morals from tadpoles. The real issue, the far greater issue, is control. The entertainment industry is used to controlling music, books, and movies — and consequently, to a considerable extent, American culture.

Unfortunately for the industry, their products are inherently digitizable: All of them, now or very soon, can easily be copied and sent anywhere by Internet. Unless the industry can find some means, legal or technical, to prevent this, all of its property will be de facto in the public domain, oops.

So much for control.

Something that makes things scarier for the industry: People increasingly seem to believe that digital information belongs to everybody, like God and air. Respectable adults, who wouldn’t steal a pack of sugar from a diner, now routinely, if quietly, pass around copyright software to friends. They burn copies of CDs checked out of libraries and download gigabytes from Napster. Kids copy CDs wholesale. A moral sea change is occurring. It bodeth not well for the industry.

The flaw in the ointment so far — the fatal fly, so to speak — has been copyright. Most of that music belongs to big record companies. The question isn’t as simple as it seems: If you record Jailhouse Rock onto tape from your radio, for personal use, that’s legal. If you download it onto your computer, it isn’t. What’s the difference?

Nonetheless, the RIAA screamed like a scalded eagle. And won, having lots of money. Napster is going away. Well, sort of going away. Maybe. Some of it. Except maybe not.

Sons of Napster are popping up right and left. Try Aimster,** for example. While they do the same thing — share music — they do it in ways that may not be legally vulnerable. Which is to say, this war ain’t over.

Further, and real important, digital information may by its very nature be uncontrollable — short, anyway, of totalitarian intrusion into people’s lives. Many of the music-grubbing criminals are teenagers. If the industry began prosecuting children, it would draw back a bloody stump. Approximately the entire earth uses Napster, and all of the fifteen-year-olds. It is hard to sue the entire earth.

Another, and serious, problem for the industry: Geeks. I mentioned one of the many copy-prevention schemes to my daughter, age nineteen. “Don’t worry,” she said with unconcern, “the boys will break it.” She had a point. All over Berkeley there are rooms full of intense geeks with IQs of 170 and C++ compilers. They eat nothing but potato chips and Jolt Cola, and they are anarchists to the gills. They will fall on copy-protection schemes in hunting packs.

The RIAA is filing lawsuits, and its teeth, because it knows that, if the various Napsters aren’t killed, the industry will be eyeball to eyeball with extinction. Who is going to pay $33 for two CDs of Credence Clearwater Survival when he can get it for free, and just the tracks he wants? For music, the Internet has already broken the monopoly over distribution. Come broadband, and people will swap movies on DVD, or just flat copy them.

A major money-bucket will dry up, and record stores will vanish, leaving smoking holes in the ground.

Which raises a question. Musicians deserve to be paid. The entertainment industry, however, deserves to be drowned. They are moral sludge who have drenched the country in vulgarity, pore-level sex, and gorgeous explosive eviscerations in slow motion. Anything that hurts them is good for civilization. So: How can we pay the musicians, but not the RIAA?

It matters. At bottom, the dispute over Napster isn’t about kids listening to godawful rock’n’roll. It’s what philosophers call a Pair-of-Diggem Shift. (If they called it something comprehensible, like a Whole Nuther Way of looking at things, they’d never get tenure, and have to work for a living.) We’re moving into a new world, whether we choose to or not.

What it comes down to, say I, is whether the cultural splendor of having music, literature, theater, and cinema freely available around the world outweigh the difficulty of finding another way to recompense those who actually produce these things. As for the RIAA — hanging would serve nicely.

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