As I write this online music distributor Napster is being dragged through the US courts by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America). What the RIAA hope to achieve by this though is beyond me. Even if it succeeds in shutting Napster down, which is by no means a foregone conclusion, there are already online services, such as Gnutella, iMesh and Freenet, out there offering similar services.

What’s more, Gnutella and Freenet are constructed in such a way that they can’t be shut down. Unlike Napster, which uses a central server to match the downloader and downloadee, they instead work on the same headless network the Internet itself uses. Freenet even guarantees users anonymity in the process.

Once it becomes obvious that these programs aren’t going away, the question should logically change. Like the war on drugs, it shifts from a question of elimination to one of harm reduction. That artists are being cheated out of revenue is not a disputed point. Even though some users (read on) buy more CD’s as a result of using online music distributors, treating Napster as a “ try before you buy”, there will always be artists that lose out.

It is, however, possible for Napster-style sites and aspiring artistes to happily coexist. Recent Napster-commissioned research suggests that nearly half of users would pay a subscription fee for Napster. This would generate revenue, part of which could in turn be handed on to record companies. It should also prove straightforward to implement. Napster’s central server, which matches the downloader and downloadee, could also easily detect how many times a given song has been downloaded.

Of course, record companies are bound to argue that the fees charged would not be as high as the prices they could charge from setting up their own digital download policies, as companies such as Sony are doing. But the reality is not that a subscriptions-based Napster would charge too low a price but that record companies are charging too high a price. It is also the case that 85% of Napster users (according to a report by Forrester Research) are buying more CD’s because of their use of the program. People are going to still want to buy the original. As one 16-year-old questioned during the research said “[You] listen to the MP3, buy the CD if you like it, and share the MP3 with friends so they can buy the CD.”

MP3 is a marketing tool not a CD replacement, as the record industry seems to think. Overcharging for digital downloads could actually shrink the market - particularly if anti-copy protection is put in place, doing away with the viral marketing that Napster has been creating.