While Napster will be returning, just in time for Christmas, pundit and fellow former Infoworld writer Robert X. Cringely has an intriguing idea for a music business he calls “Son of Napster,” or Snapster for short. Snapster leans heavily on the legal concept of Fair Use, which allows you to make makeup copies of CDs that you own. Cringely’s idea, in brief, is that Snapster would buy CDs, amassing a library of, say, 100,000 popular discs. Then its shareholders — who as owners of the company are also owners of those CDs — will be able to download tracks from those CDs for personal use.

It’s legally very clever. As my friend Rich Clayton points out, if the RIAA were to sue this company (and they certainly would), a court couldn’t possibly decide in favor of the RIAA without either declaring that shareholders don’t actually own the corporation’s assets, or that a corporation is not actually a “person” under the law, or that fair use is invalid — all of which would be a stretch, to say the least.

I’m a little less optimistic than Clayton and Cringely. For one thing, the doctrine of fair use has been coming under steady attack for the past several decades. Thanks to the DMCA’s prohibition on bypassing copy protection, citizens are legally prevented from utilizing their fair use rights — although legal challenges to the DMCA, and debates about the tension between copy protection and fair use, are far from over. One thing seems clear to me: If someone starts a Snapster, the RIAA will come down on it like a one-ton safe in a Roadrunner cartoon. Whether Snapster manages to squeak out from under that is less certain.

On the other hand: Wouldn’t you want to own a few shares of this company?

UPDATE 8/6/2003: Cringely’s readers tell him he’s a dork, and he comes back with a revised plan he calls Snapster 2.0.