Napster's chief executive defended the controversial MP3 file sharing service at a hearing with the US Senate Committee yesterday, saying his company is merely an internet directory provider.
The hearing, which took place in Washington, also included testimonies from Lars Ulrich, the drummer in Metallica, the first band to sue Napster, and one of the developers of Gnutella, another controversial file sharing technology.
At issue is Napster's provision for users to swap music files from each other's hard drives using the company's directory of members. The company has been under fire from the US recording industry and has received a number of lawsuits from artists and labels claiming that its service infringes intellectual property rights.
Hank Barry, Napster's chief executive, argued that his company does not copy files or compress them but simply "facilitates communication".
"Nobody is saying that Napster is committing direct copyright infringement. Instead, they are saying that the millions of people who use Napster are copyright infringers. We disagree and believe that the vast majority of users appropriately operate in a non-commercial manner within the bounds of the copyright laws," he said.
He added that changes in the distribution of music are inevitable and that copyright holders should embrace the internet in much the same way as they embraced new technology such as audio and video cassette recorders.
But Metallica's Ulrich argued that Napster has no right to distribute his intellectual property. "Napster hijacked our music without asking. We should decide what happens to [our songs], not Napster - a company with no rights in our recordings, which never invested a penny in Metallica's music or had anything to do with its creation. The choice has been taken away from us," he told the hearing.
Gene Kan, one of the developers of the Gnutella file sharing facility, also agreed that music distribution is likely to change forever and said such technologies are only the beginning. "We're on the precipice of a slippery slope. The toothpaste is already out of the tube. It can be exploited nicely, or turned into a huge mess," he said.
Unlike Napster, Gnutella involves no central server containing lists of members thereby giving users complete anonymity. Critics argue that this is potentially more dangerous to music copyright holders than Napster's facility.
Orrin Hatch, chairman of the US Senate Committee's Judiciary Committee, who chaired the meeting, said: "Peer to peer file sharing poses a much greater challenge than single source licensing. With each user being a publisher to a greater or lesser degree, a relative lack of a real distribution centre makes licensing somewhat chaotic and haphazard."
Napster is due to appear in another US court later this month to defend its service as part of a lawsuit filed against it by the Recording Industry Association of America.
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