Fair Use in the Digital Age: The Napster Case

In the late 1990s, a peer-to-peer file sharing system known as Napster became available to the general public.  This revolutionary new service established connections between individual computers and allowed them to share files with each other from across the globe.  Napster was unique at the time, since it never directly controlled the files which were transferred, but provided a means by which people could connect with one another.  Naturally, the record companies reacted negatively to their songs being shared and sued Napster for copyright infringement.  The resulting court case, A&M Records v. Napster, would go on to define the landscape of digital media sharing for many years to come.

In his book The Public Domain, James Boyle compares the Napster case to a much earlier decision made about Sony video recorders (1).  The Sony case concluded that recording a TV program for later viewing did not violate copyright since time shifting the show was a transformative use under fair use.  Similarly, Napster allowed for music owners to “space-shift” their files to another location or for people to sample songs which they might buy, both of which could be considered a transformative use of the songs.  In addition, Napster warned its users against violating copyright and allowed for the download of many files which were not copyright-protected, as Patricia Jacobis pointed out in her CNET article “Napster suit tests new copyright law” (2).  Napster’s lawyers pointed out all of these arguments and more, but in the end the court ruled against Napster.

The court ruling found Napster to be in violation of four factors of fair use: the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount of the work used, and the effect on the market of the use.  First, the character and purpose were found to be unfair due to the repeated download of files many thousands of times, despite the fact that no sales took place.  In addition, entire copyrighted songs were commonly being being downloaded on the site, which was more than enough to violate the amount allowed by fair use.  Finally, the court ruled that Napster could be decreasing the record sales of the downloaded songs, which was in violation of the fourth factor in fair use (3).

I chose this case for my blog post since it was so pivotal in determining how copyright law applied to digital media sharing.  At first glance, downloading a song seems like a blatant violation of copyright, but Boyle made some interesting points as to why it could be considered fair use.  The CNET article also made some fair points, although I think it could be biased since its readers are likely to be technical people who may use file sharing themselves.  In fact, since Napster was only indirectly involved in the sharing of actual songs and warned its customers against copyright infringement, there is a legitimate argument that they should not have been found liable.  However, I have to agree with the court case in the end.  The amount of material being illegally downloaded was just too great to be able to justify the other fair uses of Napster.  Nevertheless, we should remember that not all file sharing is bad, and keep in mind the Sony video recorder case, which seemed harmful on the surface, but actually benefitted the market in the long run.

(1) Boyle, James.  “The Internet Threat”.  The Public Domain.  Yale University Press. (Accessed 18 March 2014) <http://yupnet.org/boyle/>

(2) Jacobus, Patricia.  “Napster suit tests new copyright law”.  CNET News.  11 April 2000 (Accessed 18 March 2014) <http://news.cnet.com/Napster-suit-tests-new-copyright-law/2100-1023_3-239092.html>

(3) “Case Study: A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc.”  Washington University in St. Louis School of Law.  28 August 2013 (Accessed 18 March 2014) <http://onlinelaw.wustl.edu/case-study-am-records-inc-v-napster-inc/>

John Klodnicki

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