Who's Copying Who?

By Philip Sherburne, 10 April 2001

Taking a sidelong glance at ‘that Napster business’, Philip Sherburne puts a new stress on the ‘copy’ in copyright


While it is true that the Internet has revolutionised the distribution of content, Napster’s ascendancy points to an unforeseen shift in the circulation of content. Today I looked up from my keyboard to see that a song I had downloaded an hour before was already being uploaded off my hard drive by another user. An old Detroit techno track by Theo Parrish certainly doesn’t draw the same demand as Britney and Limp Bizkit, and yet there it was, called up by another invisible user and ricocheting along an interminable canyon of networked obscurity. It felt – at least for a moment – as though my Napster friend and I had been singled out as nodes, as though it were the song that owned us.

Napster, as we have all read by now, has problematised the ownership of intellectual property to an unprecedented degree. With the advent of not just the unlimited reproducibility of texts, images, and songs, but also their nearly frictionless circulation, old concepts of copyright and ‘fair use’ seem as worm-eaten as the coats our copyright lawyer forefathers are buried in.

Information wants to be free, we are told time and time again, and it’s true – but not in monetary terms. Information wants to be free in the same way that energy does: the Internet has shown us that, like electricity, information seeks the quickest path to the ground. Only information’s ‘ground’ is precisely this free-floating circulation. Napster is merely the symptom of info-desire. As a recent manifesto put it, information is “absolutely free of will, a constant flow of signs of lives which are permanently being turned into commodities” ( Indeed, Napster represents a new moment in the history of the acquisitive urge. A co-worker of mine is so enamoured of MP3s that he has developed scripts for the sole purpose of nabbing MP3s automatically, the moment one is posted to a newsgroup. His desk piled high with CD-Rs brimming with MP3s, he has amassed so much music he can’t possibly listen to it all, ever. (This is nothing new, of course; Walter Benjamin writes of his own library in similar terms. But digital compression, distribution and circulation facilitate collecting to new orders of magnitude). Just as for years the bourgeois have attempted to become an image of the objects they acquired, today’s cyber-scavengers have shown the desire to be petrified, like fossilised wood, in the form of their amassed information.

The majority of the debate over file-sharing has missed the point. Despite the RIAAs bad-faith claims, Napster is not a threat to the livelihood and the rights of artists, writers, musicians, and ‘content producers’. The system was already rotten long before Napster chanced upon the scene. And despite some Utopian pronouncements, it’s unlikely that peer-to-peer will launch the stone to topple Goliath. Capitalism is remarkably slingshot-proof – although, as a supporter of the independent recording industry, I hope that the destabilising force of Napster is enough at least to tip some badly-needed reforms in their favour.

No, the most crucial question that Napster raises with respect to ownership is the question that all consumers must ask themselves: what owns us? Objects, information, our own petrifying desire to submerge our subjectivity in limitless circulation?

Philip Sherburne <>

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