Napster backlash

A once outspoken supporter of the controversial music-swapping software switches his allegiance, as musicians strike back at Napster.

By Eric Boehlert
Published April 18, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

A few months ago, Chad Paulson sounded like a de facto spokesman for Napster, when he spearheaded a national crusade to get the wildly popular MP3 music-swapping software back on college campuses after many administrations banned the bandwidth-greedy app.

Now, the Indiana University sophomore who founded the Napster-supporting Students Against University Censorship has swapped his allegiance. It's another sign of an emerging backlash against the controversial software. On Tuesday, Reuters reported that the rapper Dr. Dre threatened to take legal action against Napster if the company didn't remove his songs from the service. And last week Metallica filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Napster, taking action against Indiana University, Yale and the University of Southern California.

On Friday, Paulson posted an open letter to Napster challenging the company to "take a stand on piracy." Napster employees "neither protect, nor crack down on their user base, and therefore they have gotten away with being the cozy middleman for almost a year now," he wrote. "In doing so, Napster is giving the MP3 format a bad name." Paulson insists that the company's goal should be to promote new artists, not make it easy for people to pirate copyrighted recordings.

That night Paulson's SAUC Web site, ironically titled, was hacked. A phony letter labeling Paulson a Napster back-stabber was left behind by the hacker. "I'm very upset about it," says Paulson. "I've never stated I'm all for Napster. I've always had concerns about piracy and have a huge education section on my site on how to use MP3 responsibly. I've been the open-minded one. Now I'm branded a traitor."

The open letter also prompted a response from Napster co-founder Sean Parker, who Paulson says called him at school. "He said the technology can't be stopped. He said that like 50 times ... Some employee was screaming at me in the background, yelling about how Napster is the plight of the record industry and they can't stop the revolution."

Parker declined to comment. Sources close to Napster explain Paulson's actions by suggesting he recently had a falling out with the company, although Paulson denies that. In a general statement, Napster's interim CEO Eileen Richardson said, "We are heartened to know that some of our avid core users take the issue of copyright infringement seriously. We do, too. While we have no affiliation with SAUC, we hope that the group's lobbying on this issue and their willingness to speak out will help reinforce to our users their obligation to use the Internet responsibly."

Gene Hoffman, CEO of Emusic, a site that sells MP3 downloads, says Napster would be wise to take Paulson's open letter seriously. "I think he has become an important voice in the community."

Paulson, who estimates that since February he's spent five hours each day working on SAUC, says he now regrets getting Indiana University to take Napster back. The 23,000 signatures his petition collected helped convince scores of schools, including the three named in the Metallica lawsuit, to capitulate and let students once again use Napster.

The sophomore says he lost faith when Napster walked away from its early commitment to market new acts. "Three weeks ago I was on the phone with Sean Parker. And I said when are you going to start promoting local music? He said that's not a priority right now. My jaw dropped to the floor. I got in contact with Napster when the university thing blew up in February. They told me, 'We don't like piracy ... We promote local artists.' I was all excited. Since then I've realized that was just a facade they put up so they could build up their user base. Now they're trying to build up a user base with the attraction of, 'Download any song you want!'"

As for Napster's defense that it's a valuable source for finding new music, Paulson wonders, "How are you going to look up something new when you have to know the name of the band to search it? It's a joke."

Asked what exactly Napster should do, Paulson responds, "It's as simple as this: Search for Metallica and Nirvana on Napster. You know for a fact those bands don't have one legitimately released MP3. So any user who obtains any of those files, you put them on a 'hot files' list and then you ban them. Napster could do that right now."

If Paulson now sounds like a mouthpiece for the Recording Industry Association of America, which is also suing Napster for copyright infringement, he insists no record company or RIAA representatives ever urged him to break with Napster. He also says the whole SAUC undertaking has been worth it. "I viewed it more as a research project," Paulson says, "and I learned a lot about the industry, about politics and people."

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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