CYBERPUNK: Napster's New Remixes

Think the music industry dislikes Napster already? Wait until they get wind of what some of this software's users are doing to its intellectual property of late! Check it out: On a copy of the Napster software program, type "vs." in the Napster song-search box. The software will return hundreds of crude home remixes, each made up with two or more popular hits of the day.

Like the old music magazines and compilation albums that paired off the pop stars of the day as if in some boxing match -- The Beatles vs. the Four Seasons and the like -- these remixes are named for the artists whose tracks are mixed together: "Everlast vs. Limp Bizkit," "Fatboy Slim vs. Steppenwolf." One of the best ones I found is the mistitled "Insane Clown Posse vs. Britney Spears," in which "Baby One More Time" is interlaced with the hook from Cypress Hill's "Insane in the Brain." In "Fatboy Slim vs. the Rolling Stones -- Rockerfaction," a live version of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" is synched with "The Rockafeller Skank." At its best, this technique produces some wonderful results: Cypress Hill's pot song provides a perfect foil for Britney Spears' pop song; Keith Richards' riff becomes fuel for more than one catchy song. The best of these tracks stay on the playlists of many Napster users, showing up frequently in searches.

The odd thing is, no one seems to take credit for them. The tracks carry no information about who did the remixes, nor are they likely to exist anywhere outside the home computers hooked up to Napster (though "Rockafeller Skank"-ster Fatboy Slim has been playing his own Stones-biting remix live for some time). I caught up with one Napster user, anagnostis1312, via the software's chat function and had to coax out it out of him that he made a few of these tracks. "These songs are very easy to make," he finally told me, after getting over his suspicion that I was a record-company lawyer. "The programs that we have are fantastic!" He tells me he uses Rebirth, a software version of an analog synthesizer. Of course, they probably get the songs from file-sharing programs like Napster itself.

The music industry probably will hate these remixes, for the same reason it hates Napster to begin with. But these home projects muddy the waters even further in todayís copyright debate. For now, no longer are people just passively listening to digital music. Theyíre making their own art, and dialogue, from copyrighted materials.

And attempts to put a stop from this remixing, or even the trading that allows this creative act to take place, just may do harm to more than the people making them. For the Recording Industry Association of America (http://www.riaa.org) certainly doesn't recognize the danger it poses in its aggressive stance toward MP3 piracy, which involves suing the pants off file-sharing software companies such as Napster. Its highly trained team of lawyers is doing everything it can to keep the $40 billion music industry intact. And yet, in this fit of self-survival, they may be endangering nothing less than the democratic process itself.

It's a crazy idea, but that's what writer Charles Mann suggests in the September 2000 issue of Atlantic Monthly. To argue his point, Mann cites the history of copyright law itself. It may amuse the average Napster downloader to learn that copyright law was not originally enacted for the good of the artist, but for the good of the people. The authors of the Constitution thought that to encourage the formation of ideas in the marketplace -- vital for a working democracy -- the creator should be granted monopoly rights to profit from his or her work. But only for a short period. Mann quotes Harvard copyright scholar Lawrence Lessig: "The creator was rewarded for a little while, but then the idea passed into the commons, where people could do what they liked with it."

The entire entertainment industry grew under the umbrella of copyright protection. And yet, if we're not careful, that industry may end up hampering our ability to freely exchange ideas.

"People hear the cries of the industry about piracy, which are real and justifiable," Lessig says. "But they don't realize that simply giving the industry what it wants will have an impact on the entire public sphere."

What happens when Napster is shut down and piracy continues unabated through the likes of Gnutella and Freenet, two file-sharing programs that no one person is responsible for running (or legally liable for)? Is it inconceivable that the record-industry powers-that-be could break apart the Internet itself? Not at all. They'll do whatever it takes to protect their fiefdom. And this will discourage all communication, not just the illegal trading of copyrighted files.

Oddly enough, 15 years ago, the music industry was the one fighting to keep Constitutional rights intact. Remember when Tipper Gore went on a bender to get music rated via the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC)? Remember how indignant that made the recording industry? "Freedom of speech, freedom of religious thought, and the right to due process for composers, performers, and retailers are imperiled if the PMRC and the major labels consummate this nasty bargain," musician Frank Zappa testified at a U.S. Senate hearing.

This I agree with. Looking back, though, I wonder if Zappa and the music industry saw censorship as dangerous for entirely different reasons. Zappa needed absolute freedom of speech for his art to flower. The entertainment industry needs to be able to use sex and violence because these are the tools that coerce people into buying stuff.

If DMX (or Zappa) didn't make more money than the classical music of Yo Yo Ma, I doubt the music industry would give one hoot about freedom of expression. What really was at stake 15 years ago? Freedom of expression for the people? Or psychological warfare against the people?

The Motion Picture Association of America is also battling a piracy war, as anyone looking through Scour could guess. But in addition to taking Scour -- a commercial Web site that helps users find, share, store, and play music, movies, etc. -- to court, MPAA has been suing private Web-page owners left and right for posting copies of DeCSS, a program written by three European programmers that can descramble DVD movie discs so one can download and play them on one's PC.

What I find disturbing here is the big picture. On the one hand, the entertainment industry tells us: Watching movies is OK. We got some sex and carnage coming right up. Don't worry about it being too morally degenerate, because, hey, this is America. First Amendment and all that. On the other hand: Start thinking for yourself and tampering with our delivery mechanism -- something that requires skills in computer programming, as well as ingenuity, intelligence, curiosity, and creativity -- and you're going to get steamrolled.

Odd set of values, huh? What kind of oppressive Total Entertainment State are we about to lock ourselves into -- one in which slavish and passive enjoyment of corporate product is allowed but individual creativity is suppressed? If we align ourselves too closely with the entertainment industry and its cries for copyright control, we'll find out.

Joab Jackson can be reached at joabj@charm.net.

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