Napster has been reborn as a subscription service. Here’s an article about the new Napster. It might not be quite the right service at the right time but you are seeing a glimpse of the future, where our relationship to our music and movies will change dramatically.

The “Napster” name was purchased by Roxio in 2003; Roxio proceeded to sell its Easy CD Creator business (and the Roxio name) in order to focus on the Napster service. To be clear – the current service marketed as “Napster” has no relationship whatsoever to the pioneering peer-to-peer software that brought file sharing to the forefront.

The new Napster service allows unlimited downloads of music files for $14.95/month. The files are loaded with restrictions enforced by a hardened version of Microsoft’s digital rights management. The files can be played on your computer but they cannot be burned to a CD and they can only be played on portable devices that will enforce the restrictions on the files – currently a very short list, as the license management is actually burned into the portable device hardware itself. If you stop paying the monthly fee, the music stops playing.

Restrictions like that are burdensome and unfair when you pay a dollar a song to iTunes or MSN Music or the other online music stores. The recording industry has intentionally priced downloaded music to make it unappealing compared to buying CDs, in a desperate (and futile) attempt to prop up its traditional business model for a while longer.

But fifteen dollars a month for unlimited access to a moderately large library is quite different, even with the restrictions. Instead of resenting the restrictions on the music files, what happens if we consider it as a subscription to a new kind of radio station – an online radio where you can pick the songs that are played and listen to them whenever you like in whatever order you like? I’m paying for XM Radio programming every month and I don’t expect to keep its broadcasts after they’re played over the air. I’m paying for cable programming and in general I expect that to be ephemeral. In some respects Napster’s service is better than that – temporary custody over the music you choose, with freedom to experiment and romp through a million-song library.

Napster may not survive. Its brand name earned such tremendous enmity in the recording industry that it may be brought down just because industry execs learned to hate the logo so bitterly. There’s already been a fuss about a low-tech way to “defeat” the Napster license restrictions.

But step back and realize you’re looking at the future of music and movies. Here’s an excerpt about music and file sharing from Lawrence Lessig’s insightful, fascinating book Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology And The Law To Lock Down Culture And Control Creativity.

“There is a crucial fact about the current technological context that we must keep in mind if we are to understand how the law should respond.

“Today, file sharing is addictive. In ten years, it won’t be. It is addictive today because it is the easiest way to gain access to a broad range of content. It won’t be the easiest way to get access to a broad range of content in ten years. Today, access to the Internet is cumbersome and slow—we in the United States are lucky to have broadband service at 1.5 MBs, and very rarely do we get service at that speed both up and down. Although wireless access is growing, most of us still get access across wires. Most only gain access through a machine with a keyboard. The idea of the always on, always connected Internet is mainly just an idea.

“But it will become a reality, and that means the way we get access to the Internet today is a technology in transition. Policy makers should not make policy on the basis of technology in transition. They should make policy on the basis of where the technology is going. The question should not be, how should the law regulate sharing in this world? The question should be, what law will we require when the network becomes the network it is clearly becoming? That network is one in which every machine with electricity is essentially on the Net; where everywhere you are—except maybe the desert or the Rockies—you can instantaneously be connected to the Internet. Imagine the Internet as ubiquitous as the best cell-phone service, where with the flip of a device, you are connected.

“In that world, it will be extremely easy to connect to services that give you access to content on the fly—such as Internet radio, content that is streamed to the user when the user demands. Here, then, is the critical point: When it is extremely easy to connect to services that give access to content, it will be easier to connect to services that give you access to content than it will be to download and store content on the many devices you will have for playing content. It will be easier, in other words, to subscribe than it will be to be a database manager, as everyone in the download-sharing world of Napster-like technologies essentially is. Content services will compete with content sharing, even if the services charge money for the content they give access to. Already cell-phone services in Japan offer music (for a fee) streamed over cell phones (enhanced with plugs for headphones). The Japanese are paying for this content even though “free” content is available in the form of MP3s across the Web.

“This point about the future is meant to suggest a perspective on the present: It is emphatically temporary. The “problem” with file sharing—to the extent there is a real problem—is a problem that will increasingly disappear as it becomes easier to connect to the Internet. And thus it is an extraordinary mistake for policy makers today to be “solving” this problem in light of a technology that will be gone tomorrow. The question should not be how to regulate the Internet to eliminate file sharing (the Net will evolve that problem away). The question instead should be how to assure that artists get paid, during this transition between twentieth-century models for doing business and twenty-first-century technologies.”

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