Last week’s decision by a federal judge in California casts a heavy shadow on the viability of Napster. But with or without Napster, on-line sharing is not about to disappear. Sharing of digital goods among Internet users has existed long before Napster was conceived, and it is likely to keep on troubling music companies, film studios, book publishers, and other owners of digitizable content.

Over the past few months we have all heard a great deal about Napster. It has been called everything from “a web site for downloading MP3s” to a vehicle for “duplicating copyrighted music” to “a place for trading files”. None of these descriptions is fully correct. In reality, Napster is a piece of software that, once installed on your machine, enables you to search and download music from other people’s computers. At the same time, you define which parts of your hard drive are open for sharing. Whatever you choose to offer is accessible to any other user, and you can’t limit sharing just to specific people, such as friends or acquaintances.

Moreover, taking files doesn’t carry a debt, and one can download, or share, as much as one wishes. In fact, whatever you share quickly becomes a public good. The only centralized function is the database, located on Napster’s main computer (server), which contains a list of all the files available for download and their locations.

The technology itself isn’t revolutionary. In fact, it is very similar to the technology that was used to create the Internet in the first place. This is not a coincidence. The Internet was built in a collective effort, and content was meant to be free and accessible to all users –and this is the reason that on-line security is so problematic. Only in the last few years, as the Internet has been opened to the general public, has it become known as a platform for profit-making (potentially, at least) ventures.

But in spite of the hoopla around e-commerce, most of the Internet is still free for all. Want to know how to breed hamsters or how to mix an “Americano” cocktail? Just search the Internet; some good soul has probably put it up somewhere. Napster’s main contribution has been to put a user-friendly interface on the sharing of music files.

It would be wrong to attribute Napster’s success to mere technological advancement or the ambition of any single software developer or financier. First and foremost, this is a social phenomenon. Even if all the technology was in place, Napster wouldn’t have existed without millions of individuals who were willing to open their computers to the world, welcoming anyone to search and take whatever they can find. This is voluntary, not-for-profit sharing of digital goods among complete strangers. And this is also what separates on-line sharing from buddies who exchange music cassettes, from Web sites that offer free music paid for by advertising, and from small time crooks that duplicate CDs to sell on a street corner. On-line sharing should be seen for what it is — an almost instinctive behavior of many Internet users.

Just as Napster wasn’t a technological breakthrough, it also wasn’t a bright business idea. In its present form, it would have had tremendous difficulties turning a profit, because it was born as an innovation by eager college students and money making wasn’t initially a goal. In fact, the belated attempt to monetize its popularity forced Napster to become a corporation, thus making it an easy target for the music companies.

Music industry executives, blind to the social trends behind the phenomenon, have been quick to draw the legal gun, and they have won temporary relief from Napster. The distributed nature of the Internet, however, makes it tough to enforce any court ruling, and the movement towards on-line sharing, just like the mythological Hydra, is likely to grow two heads for each one that is stricken down.

Whether Napster survives is secondary. On-line sharing will clearly remain a strong trend among savvy Internet users. Moreover, the music industry might miss Napster soon. Because immediately after the court ordered a practical shut down of Napster, many of its devoted users fled to look for alternatives. And those were just around the corner. Two prominent alternatives are Gnutella, a program that was written by two mischievous AOL programmers, and Freenet – which was specifically designed for guerrilla operations. Unlike Napster and Gnutella, Freenet was developed with an explicit anti-copyright, “cyber liberty” ideology. It uses a sophisticated encryption mechanism that makes it impossible to know who offers what, and where the files are actually stored. It is practically impossible to shut down.

These two pieces of software were written not for making money, but for supporting the cause of on-line sharing, and they allow users to share anything digital, including DVD movies and electronic books.

Dire straits await the oblivious film studios and music companies, who are likely to lose this battle—not because their case is unjust, but because they do not understand what stimulates this popular movement. It thrives on an ethic that encourages sharing and disdains trading, an ethic that creates huge collectives of people who have never met, but still feel compelled to “give something back” to their virtual communities. The same ethic of cooperation has turned Linux into a viable threat to Microsoft’s Windows.

The Internet allowed us to order pet food on-line and to auction surplus widgets instantly, but this was still pretty much “business as usual” for everybody. Now we are about to witness a dramatic development in the market for anything that is digital, or can become digital. Since information that can become digital – music, videos, books – can become free, shutting down web sites, outlawing software, or even selling digital music on-line will not eliminate sharing.

Music companies, film studios, book publishers, and all owners of digitizable content will have to rethink their raison d’être if they wish to survive. It will not be easy, but it is possible.