Freedom of Information: Napster and the Record Industry’s Accident

(Originally Published March 5, 2001)

Every once in awhile a defining historical event occurs. Years later, philosophers argue about what would have happened if the direction was different. What if the South won the American Civil War? What if Hitler had won WWII? What if Communism had swept the world?

Sure, we hear rumblings in the news about Napster. But like most defining events in world history, the real story is underestimated, ignored or otherwise misunderstood by most people until after the fact.

Right now the world is on the cusp of one of the most significant, and fast-paced social changes in human history. As the Internet is reborn as the borderless peer-to-peer network it was originally designed to be, it will usher in the age of “Freedom of Information,” swiftly tearing down the whole notion of Copyright or Trademark.

A specific question for philosophers in 20 or 30 years will be, “What if record companies had seriously bought in to Napster, taken advantage of its popularity and capitalized on its central-server technology? Would this have averted the Freedom of Information revolution which followed, keeping the established notions of Copyright intact?” Nobody will know the real answer. Perhaps if the record companies took the other road today, the revolution would have occured anyway, but I submit that by bringing down Napster, the record companies have certainly propelled human society on an unprecedented quantum leap forward. The real “information revolution” is not the world wide web, it is the full utilization of the very network upon which it was built.

Today, some call the free flow of information “theft.” With this comes misplaced moral principles, and the free flow of information is ultimately a “sin.” Nobody can be blamed for this worldview, this is how we were raised, and until now these old rules worked. But in the future, Freedom of Information will become as fundamental to “decent society” as democracy, fairness, and human rights. Music, film, literature and arts will flourish as property of the human community, and the artists will be rewarded by society in much different ways. Although they will try, no government agency or cyber-force will be able to stop the social change. The only way to stop it is to shut down every computer on the global network. And like book burnings which came before, I am certain this will be proposed. Companies will even develop “AlterNets” which will allow only registered servers to deliver information. Every action to turn back the clock will be an exercise in futility as the tidal wave of the revolution sweeps over humanity.

The larger philosophical question for our future philosophers will be “Would a 1984 Orwellian-style society have evolved if the Freedom of Information revolution had not occurred?” When you consider the moral nuances of Copyright infringement in the face of global totalitarianism, Copyright infringement suddenly doesn’t seem so bad; in fact, in a most peculiar irony, this “sin” could well be the saviour of human society.

Still, the greater irony is that the complete and total lack of understanding and business foresight by the record companies is the event that will usher in the incredible changes they seemingly want to prevent. As with any massive social change, there will be short-term pain (lawyers, media companies, and yes, in the short term, authors, filmmakers and musicians), but humankind will eventually recognize these changes as good, and a great debt of gratitude will be owed to the record companies for their folly. Unfortunately, the record companies will be out of business by that time, so the thanks will go unsaid.

So I would like to say “thanks” to them now. With your help, this century will prove to be even more exciting than last.