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Napster's pleas hit Congress

Although a hoped-for army of support was a few soldiers shy of its goal, the online service lobbies lawmakers.

By JOHN BALZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


WASHINGTON -- Sixteen-year-old Dan Siddoway and his 12-year-old brother, Jack, are the foot soldiers in Napster's public relations battle to stay alive. The online file-sharing service pulled out all the stops to secure their enlistment, luring the Spokane, Wash., boys away from their family vacation with free T-shirts and chocolate doughnuts.

In return, Jack and Dan agreed to show up at 8 a.m. Tuesday at a Capitol Hill restaurant. From there they walked to a Senate hearing with other Napster fans in a show of support for the embattled music service, which has been drumming up grass-roots support since a federal judge said last month its users can't exchange copyrighted music.

"I really believe in Napster personally and I hope it survives," Dan said. "I think (the service) is cool, so the more people that can get informed, the better."

"He dragged me along," said Jack, who wore a light blue Nap-ster shirt that read "thanks for sharing."

Whether they came of their own volition or at the urging of an older brother, a few hundred downloaders, mostly college age and younger, arrived at the Senate hearing room but were turned away because of lack of space.

Such backing is critical to keeping Napster's heartbeat stable while it struggles to find a profitable and legal approach to offering music.

Napster had hoped more than 1,000 supporters would show up on Capitol Hill; it was lucky to have half that number. Napster had hoped to pack the Senate Judiciary Committee's meeting room with blue T-shirts, but the idea fizzled after police said such a gathering would constitute an illegal demonstration. Most supporters were pushed into an overflow room, where they listened to an audio feed of the proceedings.

In a packed ground-floor room, senators, record executives, Nap-ster CEO Hank Barry and recording artists Alanis Morissette and Don Henley debated the implications of copyrighting materials in a digital world.

Barry urged Congress to give Internet companies compulsory licenses to sell music. Radio stations currently benefit from the licenses, which allow them to broadcast music without permission from the copyright owners.

Barry defended his company before a Senate committee in July, and it is clear the rules and assumptions about artistic works have since changed. Back then, senators wondered if posting files online was considered piracy. Tuesday, there was no debate.

"Intellectually, we are no longer at a conundrum," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "We agree that intellectual property must be protected and that new technology must be expanded. The question is how do we get there?"

Everyone agreed that distributing music in a digital format is a common and inevitable goal. But no one seemed to know how long it will take before a legal Napster becomes a reality. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., asked if six months was enough to complete negotiations.

"Six months sounds like a very short time to me," replied Henley, former lead singer for the Eagles. "We still don't know how the money is going to be collected and distributed."

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