Last notes for Net music?

"Just like a carpenter who crafts a table gets to decide whether to keep it, sell it, or give it away, shouldn't we have the same options?" asks Lars Ulrich, cofounder and drummer of the heavy metal band Metallica. Ulrich and other representatives of the music industry, as well as Web site entrepreneurs, addressed the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday at a hearing dubbed "Music on the Internet: Is There an Upside to Downloading?"

"My band authored the music which is Napster's lifeblood. We should decide what happens to [the music], not Napster--a company with no rights in our recordings, which never invested a penny in Metallica's music or had anything to do with its creation. The choice has been taken away from us," Ulrich says.

But representatives from Napster and Gnutella, both music distribution sites, maintain that their websites offer music through file sharing, rather than theft.

"Copyright law is not absolute," says Hank Barry, chief executive of Napster. "We should not brand the 20 million users of Napster 'thieves.'" Barry describes Napster as an internet directory service that does not copy, compress, or transfer files. Instead it creates a "Napster community" by enabling communication and file sharing. The site hosts 500,000 to 600,000 users each day, he says.

"I think Napster has found the technology that defeats the purpose of copyright protection," says Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California. "[Napster's] very strength, its widespread use, is also its Achilles heel." Joining her at the hearing were Senate Judiciary Chair Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and Senator Charles Schumer, D-New York.

Dilemmas raised by the information technology are "the number-one issue the federal government will have to face" in coming years, Schumer observes.

"I believe we will need some government involvement, but when dealing with a changing world, we ought to be very cautious. It's probably better to let the private sector come up with [ideas]," Schumer says.

Most of the witnesses agree, saying the marketplace and the courts will resolve copyright issues. Some say government involvement is not welcome.

It is nearly impossible for the government or anyone else to stop people from downloading music, notes Gene Kan, a Gnutella software developer. He concedes that some legislative oversight is important, though.

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