| Music may be only the beginning of grassroots piracy
Napster has done for piracy what America Online did for the Internet: put its technology within reach of the digital masses.
But where AOL has catered to middle America, Napster has opened the door to an entirely different culture, one of evolving social values that some say encourages illegal activity.
So far, the file-sharing software program and others like it have been used primarily to download digital music. However, as the Net overcomes today's size and speed barriers, these technologies could be used to trade everything from full-length movies to computer operating systems--basically, anything that can take a digital form.
Moreover, opponents say Napster-like technologies are proving far more pernicious than previous forms of piracy, as underground programmers work to create diffuse networks providing safe harbor for the burgeoning trade. Industry countermeasures such as encrypted locks have touched off a virtual arms race that cannot guarantee lasting security.
Already transcending music, Napster's wildfire popularity is forcing whole industries to reconsider their business models. Companies are realizing that the last shelter for the digital economy may be imaginative strategies that make use of widespread file-sharing rather than fighting it, just as most content companies abandoned online subscriptions for free Web sites years ago.
Napster is fighting the record industry establishment and a pair of heavy-hitting music acts in court. In a case that has drawn international attention, the small software company is desperately trying to prove that it can keep hundreds of thousands of people from pirating rock band Metallica's songs on its service.
Beyond its economic consequences, the Napster phenomenon bears profound social implications. In only a few months since capturing the public's attention, the technology has raised legal, educational and even moral questions while changing the very definition of commercial entertainment and how people use it.
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