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A SOUR NOTE FOR NAPSTER

The three-judge federal court that ruled against swapping copyrighted songs on Napster made the right decision. Free downloading of copyrighted music is just high-tech thievery.

That said, the reality is that despite the ruling, the tide unleashed by this company cannot be held back. Keeping Internet technology from those who want it will prove as effective as keeping drugs away from those who desire a quick high. Copyrighted music will continue to be shared for free. It will simply proceed without the benefit of Napster.

But that doesn't mean that companies should be able to openly ignore copyright laws. It's time for Napster to figure out how to survive by paying for its product. Napster makes it easy for users of personal computers to locate and trade songs stored as computer files in the MP3 format, which crunches digital recordings down to manageable size without sacrificing quality. Meanwhile, the music industry, which is cheering the decision, needs to come to terms with the new technology.

Already, Bertelsmann AG has agreed to fork over capital if Napster switches to a subscription-based service that pays royalties to artists. Bertelsmann was one of the five record labels that sued Napster, claiming that it could rob it of billions of dollars in profits.

Napster, which began in 1999 and is based in Redwood City, Calif., was a grass-roots phenomenon. It was started in a college dormitory room, the brainchild of Shawn Fanning. It has given competition to the half a dozen companies that have a stranglehold on the music industry. Those same companies were running scared until the court ruled in their favor.

The media giants have seen the future and they don't like it, at all. They have seen their viselike control of the music industry weakened by the Internet.

Ironically, record sales (or, these days, CD sales) have not lagged as a result of Napster. In fact, music fans downloading music from the Internet later purchase music online or in stores, according to a study commissioned by the Digital Media Association.

Of course, this is an argument from those in the digital music industry who would like to see the continuation of free music sites. And it is contrary to what the music industry has said.

However, the record company giants will likely sing another tune once they figure out a way to make money off the Internet. Given the court's ruling, they should be singing that new tune sooner rather than later.

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