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Addicted to Napster

by Ryan Tate

Robert MacCoun may be a distinguished law professor and social psychologist, but he's not always popular with his colleagues.

A stickler for details -- he has studied how seemingly inconsequential acts can shake society when multiplied by millions of actors -- MacCoun is careful in ways that might seem selfish.

Take, for example, his record collection. In the course of compiling a personal archive of obscure jazz and folk music, the mild-mannered scholar heeds the carefully worded copyright notices on his albums. "They say something like, 'please do not redistribute this to your friends, even if they ask,'" says MacCoun, who teaches in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program at the law school of the University of California, Berkeley. "And I respect that."

MacCoun says he knows that the small record companies who produce most of his records and compact discs need every last dime they can get. So when friends ask for cassette recordings of the tunes, he turns them away.

The big boys don't count

But he doesn't hoard mainstream music like that, he notes with a nervous chuckle. It's not the same, he explains, when an album is cut by one of the five major record labels -- Bertelsmann's BMG, EMI, Sony (SNE), Seagram's (VO) Universal Music Group and Time Warner's (TWX) Warner Musc Group. The imperative for observing copyright laws is not as great when he's dealing with a large corporation.

MacCoun's record-taping policy encapsulates the problem with copyright law in the Internet era, the professor and other social psychologists say. People don't see much point in observing laws that seem only to enrich corporate executives and lawyers rather than artists and performers, or of buying products like compact discs that drive profits rather than customer satisfaction.

That, the psychologists say, is probably as important as technology like Napster in explaining why people now download, for free, songs that cost thousands of dollars to produce -- and why they will likely continue to do so even if the courts declare such activity illegal. "It makes it extremely easy for a user of Napster to say, 'the only people being hurt are the record companies, and they aren't paying the artists anyway,'" says Peter Kollock, who teaches social psychology at UCLA.

And whatever the reason for Napster use, the social shrinks continue, Americans are clearly growing addicted to free music and wary of the notion of intellectual property in general. It's even up for debate whether they really believed in intellectual property in the first place -- or just complied with copyright laws because past technology left them with little other choice.

Studying human behavior

The psychologists interviewed for this story emphasize that they are merely speculating on the Napster phenomenon -- none has studied the program formally, nor is there much, if any, academic research on the topic, since Napster has only been around for about 10 months. But their speculation is rooted, at least, in lengthy, in-depth study of human behavior -- rather than guesswork or financial self-interest.

In the end, they say, there are no easy answers for the record industry. An affordable, subscription service as easy and rich as Napster -- a model that companies like RealNetworks (RNWK), (MPPP) and Emusic (EMUS) are shooting for -- probably won't fly in the current social climate, they say.

Copyright ©1993-2000 Upside Media Inc. All rights reserved

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