Tech

The Heirs of Napster

If the music-sharing site goes down, others are ready to move in

Chris Wood February 26 2001
Tech

The Heirs of Napster

If the music-sharing site goes down, others are ready to move in

Chris Wood February 26 2001

The Heirs of Napster

Tech

If the music-sharing site goes down, others are ready to move in

Chris Wood

The expensive speakers in Matthew Hines’s Toronto apartment fill the two-bedroom space with high-fidelity sound. A cable modem supplies a premium-priced, high-speed connection to the Internet. And as the administrator of a pension fund, the 28-year-old clearly can afford any music CD he chooses. Instead, for the last year or so,

Hines has fed his pricey speakers with music downloaded for free from the Net. By the time a U.S. court threatened last week to put the Internet’s leading music-download service—Napster Inc.—out of business, Hines had collected more than 600 pirated music tracks. And while he expresses dismay at Napster’s cloudy future, he doesn’t expect the beat of illicit downloads to falter. “I’ll miss the little beast,” Hines says of his favourite pirateware. “But you know, there’ll be something else that pops up. There always is.”

The question facing music lovers— as well as musicians, record companies and legislators—is what, exacdy, that something will be. A ruling by a U.S. appeals court confirmed record company complaints that Redwood City, Calif.-based Napster “knowingly encourages and assists the infringement of plaintiffs’ copyrights.” Still, the bench stayed Napster’s execution, ordering a lower court to reissue an injunction against the company obliging it to remove copyright works from lists of music available for sharing—but not necessarily to shut down entirely.

Yet with Napster deeply wounded, its 50 million users will be looking for other ways to download their favourite Metallica or Britney Spears tracks. That may give conventional record labels a chance to win back customers by unrolling legal digital music download services of their own. But the opportunity will not last. Unless the labels satisfy tech-sawy music lovers like Hines soon, most experts agree, a new generation of Napster-like services—dubbed “peer-to-peer,”

or P2P—will extend the reach of consumer piracy to movies, e-books and computer games.

Driving those predictions is the knowledge that Napster— legal or not—has been an unequivocal hit with users since its creation by student Shawn Fanning, then 18, in 1999. There are two good reasons: Napster is easy to use, and its virtual catalogue includes almost every pop song recorded in the last couple of decades. Users need little skill to download the software that lets them log on to the Napster network. Then they merely type a song tide or artist’s name onto their screen and click their mouse to fetch a menu of matching files, encoded in the MP3 music format, residing on the computers of other Napster users logged on at the same time. Another click starts the track downloading to their own hard drive. And if they also own a portable MP3 player or a CD “burner”—which

creates compact discs—they can play the music anywhere.

Napster’s possible demise has only heightened the passion for piracy. On the weekend just before the U.S. court ruling, an estimated 1.5 million fans were on the service at any given moment, according to Cambridge, Mass.-based Webnoize Research. Over two days, they downloaded about 250 million songs—close to 90 per cent of them believed to be copyright. To musicians and record companies, the orgy of last-minute Napstering theoretically meant a 48-hour loss of about $270 million. The court’s ruling was a “clear victory,” said Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Institute of America, which brought the original suit against Napster.

But the victory is far from clear. Napster signalled its intention to fight on by unveiling a plan to modify MP3 files downloaded over its system so that some uses—such as burning onto a CD—would be impossible unless users paid a fee. The fees, Napster said, would go in part to pay copyright holders. On the other hand, with Napster in trouble, more than a dozen major rivals have emerged to keep the hugely popular cyber swap-meet going—for free. Some baby Napster services closely follow the original model. Others promise to extend the reach of filesharing technology—perhaps beyond the long arm of future lawsuits. Several popular new file-sharing services, like BearShare and Lime Wire, are based on the more evolved Gnutella P2P architecture. Where I Napster relies on its own servers to § store lists of songs and make downI load connections between members, | newer services distribute those tasks ° among the computers logged on. Some go further, rendering the digital exchanges anonymous. Several also let you search for files in formats other than MP3—including games, pictures and movies. (And parents beware: the file lists include copious amounts of porn.)

Enthusiasts claim Napster’s more elusive offspring will signal the inevitable defeat of conventional notions of copyright, the U.S. court notwithstanding. “The music industry may have won the batde,” says Ian Clarke, a 24-year-old Briton whose Freenet software allows anonymous file sharing. But it will lose the war against P2P systems such as his, he insists. “Freenet—since it’s completely decentralized—would be very difficult for them to shut down,” Clarke asserts. Rival programmer Vinnie Falco of West Palm Beach, Fla., creator of BearShare, believes programs to come will do for movies and other digital files what Napster did for music. “Digital rights management will fail miserably,” he says. “It is impossible to protect files from being copied or traded. Impossible.”

That widely held view may prove premature. Microsoft and IBM are among the programming giants developing new ways to block wholesale copying. Meanwhile, a more effective deterrent may be the upstarts’ own shortcomings. So far, none delivers the ease of use or huge catalogue that Napster achieved. And downloading a movie can take days.

With Napster struggling and its rivals not ready for prime time, big entertainment companies have one last chance to avoid the oblivion Clarke and Falco foresee. Webnoize analyst Matt Bailey predicts that as many as half of Napster users will be put off by other services, at least initially. Surveys, meanwhile, indicate most Napster users would pay as much as $15 (U.S.) a month for its service. To Bailey, that gives music retailers and labels an opportunity to match what Napster offers. “People want to go to one place, get all the music they like, and download it to their computer,” says Bailey. “The future we see is for subscription services.”

But they will have to come soon. It is only a matter of time before one of Napster’s clones emerges as a dominant force. The next wave of file-swapping could reach critical mass, says BearShare’s Falco, “in as little as two or three months.” Hardly enough time for Hines to play through his existing collection of pirated music.

Michael Snider

A DOWNLOADED GUIDE

GNUTELLA

The best-known file-sharing program after Napster. Can be hard to use, so has spawned several friendlier versions using its system, including LimeWire, BearShare andToadNode. www.gnutella.wego.com www.limewire.com www.bearshare.com www.toadnode.com

IMESH

Handles MP3s as Napster does, plus video, image and software files. One of the newest, and simple to use. www.imesh.com

AIMSTER

Makes it easy for users of AOL’s instant messenger, AIM, to exchange files with people on their buddy list, including software, videos and MP3s. www.aimster.com

FREENET

Peer-to-peer file-sharing, like Gnutella. Efficient searching and storage, but not very user-friendly. freenet.sourceforge.net