Just two years ago, the word "Napster" didn't exist. Metallica and Dr. Dre hadn't yet found their calling as legal vanguards -- they were simply performers. And college students around the world were forced to get their music through the same old channel: the music store. Oh, how things have changed. This week, the world of online music distribution was dealt a serious blow when a federal appellate court forced Napster -- a popular file-sharing service -- to begin restricting access to thousands of copyrighted songs that it had been making available for free exchange. In legal terms, the decision represents an enormous short-term victory for the big music labels. They have been vigorously arguing, and rightfully so, that Napster presents its users with an opportunity to obtain copyrighted music without compensating the artist or distributor. The recording companies may be right. In its current form, Napster's service may in fact infringe upon established laws concerning intellectual property. But that interpretation does little to account for the significant technological leap which Napster and its peers have brought to the music industry. And that development, it appears, will outlast any short-term court ruling. The simple truth is that electronic file sharing is a technology that has enormous future potential. Even if Napster is completely shut down -- which is not likely -- other companies will soon rise in its place to capitalize on the proven market and the proven technological platform. Great possibility also exists in file sharing as a means of promoting new and unheard musical acts. And even some popular performers -- such as Dave Matthews and Moby -- have decried the decision against Napster as a move against intellectual freedom. The recording labels would stand to benefit by embracing the technology which Napster has pioneered, instead of condemning it. To do otherwise risks continued music piracy, further legal battles and a stagnation of innovation in the industry that relies upon it the most.
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