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Whiz kid has 'fingerprints' all over new Napster

Sean Ward developed the digital fingerprint when he was 20 years old
Sean Ward developed the digital fingerprint when he was 20 years old  

By Ann Kellan
CNN Technology Correspondent

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (CNN) -- When an updated version of Napster goes online later this summer, the song-sharing software will include new fingerprint technology to prevent users from swapping copyrighted songs.

The controversial network went off-line this week while new software was being installed. The upgrade will shift Napster from a free to subscription service on the Internet, the company said.

The new version will include a song recognition system invented by a 20-year-old whiz kid, Sean Ward of Alexandria, Virginia, who developed it to identify music quickly. In about one second, the software can give a song a unique digital fingerprint.

"It's made up of hundreds of different numbers which describe different aspects of a piece of music or sound," Ward said.

The software uses mathematical formulas to pinpoint what is unique. For example, live and studio versions of Madonna's song "Vogue" produce separate prints. And one does not need to play the entire song to create a fingerprint.

"It's very fast. So in this case, it's indexing 20 tracks, which average five minutes in length, in about 1.5 seconds per track," Ward said while demonstrating his invention.

Napster purchased Ward's fingerprint software to help satisfy a U.S. court order mandating that the company prohibit the free distribution of copyrighted material over its network.

The digital fingerprint software uses mathmatical formulas to pinpoint what is unique
The digital fingerprint software uses mathmatical formulas to pinpoint what is unique  

When users want to download a song, the updated Napster will compare the song file to millions of song fingerprints, making sure that the song being downloaded is the song that was requested and that the download is permissible.

The fingerprint identifies the song, without using its name or title. Therefore, efforts to fool the system by changing or misspelling the title will not work. But the system is not foolproof, Ward cautioned. The music remains vulnerable to theft.

"You can still copy that music to a CD or whatnot. This is not putting restrictions on music. All it is doing is simply identifying it," he said.

A music lover and computer hacker, Ward took a leave of absence from the University of Virginia to start his digital fingerprinting company, Relatable, quite a load for a college student.

"It's a lot of pressure, obviously. And there are times when it would be nice to not have that pressure. Because it means you don't get to do things that would be fun for someone my age. But the ability to be doing something that will have a mark on the world is valuable," he said.

Ward developed the fingerprint system not to blow the whistle on music thieves but to recommend music. His software builds a profile of songs that a user likes, then suggests songs with similar fingerprints that the user might never have heard of before.

Ward said critics have accused him of helping kill free music. He disagrees.

"I would say that it is more of a way to let the party go on a way that everyone can participate how they want," he said.

• Napster

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