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Steal this song

MacWorld Online

July 7, 2000
Web posted at: 10:22 a.m. EDT (1422 GMT)

(IDG) -- Tonight's the night. After months of indecision you've decided to offer your hand in matrimony to that special someone. You've purchased the ring and chosen the ideal spot to pop the question--the only remaining detail is selecting the perfect song to accompany your proposal. After scanning your record collection for Chad and Jeremy's The Ark--"Painted Dayglow Smile" is "your song"--you remember you loaned the record to your brother-in-law last week. What to do?

Simply fire up your Mac, launch a copy of a program called Macster, type Chad and Jeremy into the Artist search field, and cross your fingers. Sure enough, you discover that "Painted Dayglow Smile" is available for download from three different computers. With a double-click, the song is delivered to your Mac in a matter of minutes--at no cost and just in time for its strains to be heard as your beloved crosses the threshold.

As romantic as this scenario seems, there's one minor catch: your actions may be illegal--illegal enough, in fact, that if the recording industry has its way, Internet services such as Napster that allow people to swap songs online could be shut down in short order.

This seemingly innocent act of trading music online has sparked a remarkable controversy that has pitted fans against bands, artists against the recording industry, and the recording industry against an Internet start-up. Yet if this trend continues, it's likely to change the way artists and their representatives make money and how you lay your hands on everything from music to software to movies.

The way we were

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Most people still get their hands on music the old-fashioned way--by trooping down to their local retailer and buying it. Web-savvy folks might purchase CDs online, but it's fundamentally the same concept--paying for the right to use tangible media. But a number of factors are conspiring to change this model.

Means to an end

The first, and most notorious, factor is programs such as Napster and Gnutella--programs that allow you to download MP3 files from other people's hard drives without paying a penny to the artist or entertainment industry. With a Napster client such as Macster (or the Mac-compatible Furi client for Gnutella) and a broadband Internet connection, Mac users can download an album's worth of MP3 files in less than an hour. This leads us to the second factor: high-speed Internet access.

Fast enough for you

Downloading a file of a few megabytes used to take hours. With broadband connections such as DSL and cable modem--featuring download rates more than ten times faster than those of 56-Kbps modems--becoming more commonplace, however, you can now download multimegabyte media files in just minutes.

Cut down to size

But even with high-speed Internet access, the trend to download large digital media files would be stymied without file compression. MP3, the most widespread audio-compression technology today allows you to compact a 3-minute, 31MB audio file into a 3MB song while maintaining a high level of quality.

Holding on

Although the recording industry would likely be loath to admit it, its reluctance to embrace online access to the material it controls plays a significant part in this digital drama. Even though most people would agree that artists and their representatives should be compensated for their work, many feel, for example, that there has to be a better way to obtain one song than paying as much as $18 to purchase an entire album on CD--prices which, according to the FTC, are artificially inflated. Were media more easily obtained online--and at a lower price--people might be more motivated to pay for content instead of pirating it.

While the ways, means, and motive are in place, they have little to do with the furor surrounding this subject. We know the technology works, but what we haven't agreed on is whether using it is legal or morally justifiable--and if there's some middle ground that will satisfy everyone involved.

Whipping post

Currently, Napster is the lightning rod for this controversy. Although an outfit called was the first to be taken to court for allegedly storing MP3 files illegally on its servers, Napster has generated the bulk of the press. Here's why:

It's in the way that you use it

As we stated, Napster created software that allowed people with a Napster client program--Macster is one of the most popular for the Mac--to download MP3s from another person's hard drive. You do this by launching the program, signing up for a free account, searching for an artist or song title by name--then downloading files that match your search. PC users can designate a folder on their drive for MP3 files they want to share--they just drop the MP3s into the folder and identify the location of the folder on the hard drive. The Mac software currently available doesn't allow users to share their files--although Napster says it's working on Mac software that will let you share files as well as play MP3s from within the program.

When someone shares files on his or her drive, the Napster client sends a list of those files to Napster's central server. That list is incorporated into a huge database of song titles and artists--no actual MP3 files are stored on the server, just a directory of the MP3 files that Napster users are offering for download.

You can't always get what you want

This process may sound innocent enough, but Napster's popularity has put a few burrs under the saddles of two groups--those who maintain computer networks at colleges and universities and representatives of the music industry.

Campus life

Napster is extremely popular among people who tend to listen to lots of music and have access to high-bandwidth network connections--namely, college students. Because a large number of these students use Napster and transfer huge files back and forth across the Internet via campus networks, these networks can become clogged by an activity that some school administration officials maintain is recreational--and therefore unnecessary. For this reason, Napster has been banned on some college campuses.

Battle of the bands

Unlike files on MP3 Web sites such as the Internet Underground Music Archive, which carries files from artists who want their music downloaded, the majority of files found via Napster are pirated--commercial songs that have been posted in violation of copyright laws.

While some artists, such as Limp Bizkit, the Offspring, Public Enemy's Chuck D and many independent bands, support having their music freely distributed, others--and the music industry at large--don't. For example, Metallica filed suit against Yale and Indiana University, in addition to Napster, alleging copyright infringement and racketeering. Once Yale and Indiana University banned Napster, the institutions were dropped from the lawsuit.

The members of Metallica were concerned enough about the alleged music piracy that they tracked down more than 300,000 users who had posted or copied their music, and provided those names to Napster along with the demand that Napster discontinue these users' accounts.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), an industry group that represents major record labels, also filed suit against Napster. As we went to press, a judge had decided not to dismiss the lawsuit against Napster, leaving open the possibility of a trial.

Although Napster claims it has no control over the files that users make available--the software displays a request that you post only legal MP3 files when you first install the client--the Metallica and RIAA suits maintain that because Napster retains a database of those MP3 files found on computers running Napster clients, the company knows that audio files are being pirated and is facilitating that piracy. Naturally, Napster disagrees.

Who are you?

How does this affect you? It might put Napster out of business, and if you're a devoted Napster user, this is certainly sad news. But Metallica's actions could bring the controversy closer to home. The fact that Metallica was able to obtain the screen names of these users should concern those who post and download files on Napster. Should the recording industry wish to get personal and go after individuals--and you engage in this kind of file trading--it's possible that you'll be taken to task for your actions.

It's still too much

Napster isn't the RIAA's only target. offers a service called that allows you to listen to any music you own over the Internet from any computer. To register as the owner of a particular audio CD, you simply sign on to and insert the CD in your computer's CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive. The RIAA sued, and in April, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that violated copyright law with this action. At press time, had removed all songs owned by the five largest record distributors in the United States.

Regardless of how specific legal issues are resolved--or whether Napster will have ceased to exist by the time you read these words--the battle over sharing files on the Internet has just begun. Though Napster and, with their centralized servers, may be vulnerable to prosecution, those seeking to shut down Internet file sharing are likely to have a harder time targeting peer-to-peer technologies such as Gnutella.

The direct route

Unlike Napster, Gnutella allows users to share files between individual computers without going through a central server. Instead, when a Gnutella user performs a search, the Gnutella software, rather than querying a database held on a central server, directly polls computers on a Gnutella network and returns a list of accessible files. Users then select the files they want, initiate a download request, and the files are transferred directly from one computer to another.

With no company hosting a central server, groups like the RIAA will have to target users who offer pirated music or software, rather than a specific company that facilitates that piracy. Obviously there are far too many people sharing these kinds of files to sue them all, but the RIAA may choose to make an example of large-scale pirates.

It takes all kinds . . . of media

Particularly troublesome to the entertainment and software industries is that unlike Napster, Gnutella also supports a variety of media formats, meaning that people can transfer not only music files but also video, pictures, and software. Users with enough bandwidth, patience, and hard-drive space will be able to download the latest feature films and copies of Microsoft Office--without paying for them.

Fixing a hole

While prosecution of those who pirate copyrighted material may be a short-term solution, preventive measures may make Internet file sharing irrelevant. Specifically, the music industry is looking at ways to protect media--both online and in physical form--so that it cannot be copied.

DVD is not free

A company called Macrovision, for example, has created a copy-protection scheme for DVD-Video--if you try to copy a DVD to VHS tape or a computer's hard drive, the video signal is scrambled, making the video unwatchable. This comes after the discovery that DeCCS, a utility originally intended to allow Linux users to view DVD movies, was being used to copy movies onto hard drives.

Such schemes, however, wouldn't work without some cooperation among entertainment and technology companies, and that cooperation came in the form of the Secure Digital Music Initiative--a coordinated effort by the entertainment and technology industries to copy-protect media. But the plan doesn't stop with just CDs, DVDs, and other digital recording media. Companies are working on ways to protect online media from being pirated as well.

Controlled distribution

Liquid Audio has created its own system for controlling online distribution of music. A song encoded with the company's Liquifier Pro software is encrypted in such a way that only the authorized listener can play it. Also, the software embeds an inaudible digital watermark into each song, allowing ownership tracking.

In-store appearance

This isn't to say that the music industry is relying only on copy protection. There's already a move to plant music kiosks in record stores--places where you can burn music files onto your own CDs or download MP3 files to portable players such as Diamond Multimedia's Rio 500. While this makes buying exactly the music you want easier, it doesn't address the fact that it's far more convenient to download music and media from the Web than to hop in your car to visit the local record mart. Napster and Gnutella have demonstrated that there's a huge demand for online access to media; it's now up to the recording industry to determine how to provide this kind of service while still making a profit. (Some record labels have announced plans to make albums and singles available for purchase and download online, at least on a trial basis.)

The last word

Where will this all lead? Moving copyrighted files across the Internet is both easy to do and easy to get away with--but it won't be for long. Though the RIAA and Metallica aren't likely to start getting people who download an MP3 or two tossed into the pokey, they will take steps other than prosecution to protect their rights and work. This means that stricter copy-protection schemes will be introduced in the near future. Yet this too is a short-term solution; though copy-protection measures will surely reduce piracy, savvy people will find a way to skirt them. With this in mind, the entertainment industry must eventually bow to the realities of this new wired world, shift its current distribution model, and seek alternative means of compensation--with actions such as advertising on online distribution centers, offering "bonus" material that can be purchased only online, and streaming "pay to play" content on demand.

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Napster homepage
Gnutella homepage
Internet Underground Music Archive
The Recording Industry Association of America

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