Napster, the free online music-sharing service that narrowly avoided being shut down last week, has been adored by its 20 million users and loathed by musicians and others up and down the recording industry food chain.
But whether Napster survives, its huge, almost instant success with music fans will have lasting effects well beyond the recording industry.
"Music is the tip of the iceberg for Napster and Napster-like technologies," said David Post, an expert in cyber law at Temple University.
"It changes, quite dramatically, the character of the Internet and the way individuals access information," Post said.
He and others said new uses for the "file sharing" capability of Napster and similar services with names such as Gnutella and Freenet can easily be applied to other forms of entertainment, such as movies and books and anything else that can be reduced to a data file.
"By joining Napster," Post said, "I'm saying that you can come and look around my hard disk, or a portion of my hard disk, and if you see something you like, there's an easy way for you to get it.
"That's pretty amazing. It's another kind of search tool."
Napster, a simple-to-use computer program written by a college student, allowed its users to trade high-quality music recordings for free online with a few clicks of the mouse. It swept over the Internet late last summer.
Students who were hooked up to high-speed Internet access at their universities found the program so compelling that their use of it clogged many university computer networks and prompted some Napster bans.
'It shouldn't exist'
Heavy metal rockers Metallica and rap star Dr. Dre sued the service earlier this year, contending that fans were stealing their copyrighted work by the hard-disk load.
Less-famous artists were no less upset by the prospect of working royalty-free.
"I look at Napster as a musical crack house, where people are dealing in stolen files," said David Blumberg, a classical musician living in Broomall who sells his own CDs online at the MP3.com Web site.
"It shouldn't exist," Blumberg said of Napster last week.
A federal judge, Marilyn Patel, came to the same conclusion on Wednesday. In a preliminary hearing in a lawsuit brought against Napster Inc., of San Mateo, Calif., by the Recording Industry Association of America, Patel ordered that Napster must stop "copying or assisting or enabling or contributing to the copy or duplication of all copyrighted songs and musical compositions of which the plaintiffs hold rights."
Napster Inc. an Internet startup company running on millions in venture capital had "created a monster," Patel said, and "it's up to them to write software that will remove from users the ability to copy copyrighted material."
Napster attorneys appealed and won a stay of the shutdown order, but not before many of Napster's 20 million users raced to download free tracks to beat the deadline.
Piracy in focus
Napster brought the long-standing problem of music piracy from the fringes to center stage, said Bruce Fries, author of "The MP3 Internet Audio Handbook."
"Napster was so easy to use that even the dumbest kid in the class could use the service. That's why it's such a threat," Fries said.
But Napster's popularity should send a message to the recording and other entertainment industries, he said.
"They need to make music more affordable ... and offer, ultimately, subscription services like Napster. Napster would have never existed if the major labels had fulfilled the demand for downloadable songs from major artists," he said.
While the recording industry reveled in the granting of the preliminary injunction, the president and chief executive of the RIAA, Hilary Rosen, did add one note of tempered conciliation.
In a statement, Rosen called on Napster officials "and others" to "work with the record companies to devise innovative ways to use their technology for legitimate purposes."
Experts say the industry has been slow to adopt music downloading because of the ongoing concerns over copyright protection. That will have to change, and quickly, they say.
Record companies would be mistaken to take their so-far successful fight against Napster "as a strategy for the future," said Eric Sheirer, an analyst with a technology research company, Forrester Research Inc. Instead, he said, the industry ought to study why fans loved Napster, and duplicate its success.
"I don't like the idea of shutting down Napster as a remedy," said Temple's Post, "because I want to see this technology flourish."