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Swap MP3s, go to jail?
(IDG) -- Pirates. That's all the infuriated music industry sees in Napster, the first online application that lets you download basically any MP3 music without spending a dime. In fact, the Recording Industry Association of America has pushed Napster out on the plank: A San Francisco judge soon will rule on its lawsuit alleging Napster runs a giant haven for music piracy.
But the Napster case may be only the opening sword fight. The recording industry is taking very seriously what it considers Internet plundering of its jewels. And new sentencing guidelines scheduled to take effect in May could actually land MP3 pirates in the brig. That is, while simple hobbyist downloads are tough to track, Netizens who violate copyright law by aggressively sharing software and digital tunes face arrest and even jail.
Napster is not the only target. Since that suit was filed in December, a fleet of similar applications has sailed onto the Net. Web-based applications such as Gnutella, Napigator, and Wrapster are making it just about impossible to protect music, software programs, photographs, videos, or almost any other copyrighted digital material. The sites promote the programs for legal MP3 trading and often post a policy statement to that effect. In reality, the sites do not police their users (and sometimes note that, as well).
The cops know they can't stop everybody, but they aim to get everyone's attention.
"There is no way we can arrest a million people," acknowledges Glenn Nick, assistant director of the U.S. Customs Agency's CyberSmuggling Center. The distribution programs have flooded out far too widely for law enforcement to stop all cases of illegal copying. Unlike Napster, many programs in this new breed operate peer-to-peer, so there's no central site for investigators to target.
The cuffs aren't digital
But brace yourself for some serious arrests.
"People say you can't do anything about speeding," says Randy Thysse, supervisory special agent at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. "But [you can] park a cruiser on the side of the road to slow people down."
So watch for that virtual patrol car, and expect more than a ticket. Thysse advocates jail time for software and music buccaneers -- and starting next month, judges may go along with him.
Convicted copyright offenders can receive jail time under new sentencing guidelines that take effect May 1. The policies cover intellectual property offenses on an emergency interim basis, and stem from the 1997 No Electronic Theft Act.
"It's getting increasingly easy to swap software and increasingly hard to catch pirates," says John Wolfe, manager of investigations for the Business Software Association. "These new sentencing guidelines give law enforcement some real ammunition."
I fought the law and the law... won?
While the Justice Department has shown a great resolve to stop computer piracy, until now criminal penalties have been limited. They are too small to justify the big price tags of investigation and prosecution, says the FBI's Thysse.
The BSA and others are betting that high-profile busts will send a clear message to intellectual property crooks. "The odds are you aren't going to get caught," says Wolfe, but you'll never know.
You're taking a two-pronged risk when you use these file-swapping tools, points out Nick of the Customs Department.
As part of the process, you open your PC to the public so you can download files. This exposes your PC to hackers and viruses.
It also exposes you legally. You're a private Netizen when you're simply surfing, but when you open a subdirectory of your PC, you've changed your online status and have become a de facto server, subject to law enforcement investigations. And if they bust you, they can take your equipment.
Clearly, law enforcement is doing more than sabre-rattling. But as an aside, Nick comments that it's also time the music industry developed better digital safeguards instead of relying on electronic cops.
Peeking into the secret-sharers
What does this controversy look like from the other side?
I took a look at Gnutella, one of dozens of these new-breed file-swapping programs popping up all over the Net. It connects you to a peer-to-peer distributed network -- basically, a 24-hour impromptu digital swap meet online.
Like similar programs, it is clumsy but powerful. Once Gnutella is installed, you must designate a directory on your computer to make "public" and one to receive downloaded files. Connect to the Internet, and the program automatically links you to thousands of people running Gnutella on their PCs.
Once connected, your "public" directory and anything in it become part of a gargantuan keyword-searchable database. You can request MP3s, games, software applications, and music videos. Your request moves quickly from computer to computer, returning links to files. Simply click on the files you want, and programs begin to download. Napster, it should be noted, is aimed at music files, while Gnutella has a broader reach.
No, PC World does not condone illegal copying of files, and neither does the quasi-official Gnutella site. "There is nothing inherently illegal about sharing files," points out Ian Hall-Beyer, host of the site.
But it's clearly a popular pastime. With the Gnutella "monitor" function selected, you can watch in astonishment, as I did, as anonymous users scanned my public directory looking for everything from Windows 2000 and Photoshop to X-rated images and Britney Spears MP3s. (Outta luck, guys!)
And at any given moment, hundreds of people are running Gnutella, Napigator, Wrapster, Napster, and similar programs that are still surfacing. They're busily downloading files -- some of them perfectly legally -- but now the feds have them in their spyglass.
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