Andy Oram, O’Reilly & Associates, Inc.
Like many new ideas with substantial “disruptive” potential (that is, ideas whose impacts can fundamentally change the roles and relationships of people and institutions), peer-to-peer has been surrounded by a good amount of fear. In particular, it has been closely associated in the public mind with the legal difficulties faced by Napster over claims that the company engaged in copyright infringement. The association is ironic, because Napster depends heavily on a central server where users register information. It is precisely the existence of the central server that makes it technically possible for a court to shut down the service.
However, Napster does demonstrate important peer-to-peer aspects. Files are stored on users’ individual systems, and each download creates a peer-to-peer Internet connection between the source and destination systems. Furthermore, each system must furnish metadata information about the title and artist of the song. The legal questions Napster raises naturally attach themselves to some of the other peer-to-peer technologies, notably Gnutella and Freenet.
The Napster case in itself may not be dangerous to other peer-to-peer technologies. Its particular business model, its dependence on the preexisting popularity of exchanging MP3 files that are unauthorized copies of copyrighted material, and the many precedents for the concepts invoked by both sides (fair use, vicarious ...