Record execs fight Napster nightmares

by Alan Zisman (c) 2000. First published in Vancouver Computes, April 2000

As a teacher, it?s useful for me to know which kids in a class are the computer sophisticates?the ones who can be a lot of help if they?re on my side, and the ones I need to watch if they?re not. Last year, my quick and dirty test was to ask the class ?Who?s heard of ICQ?? The ones who put up their hand were on the elementary school cutting edge.

This year, my question has changed to ?Who?s heard of Napster?? Without fail, the grade 6 and 7 kids who are aware of this program (even if they learned of if from their older siblings) are the ones I want to know about.

ICQ and Napster have some things in common. Both are free, and seemingly in perpetual beta. Both use the Internet?and both allow users to build a sort of customized instant community.

ICQ (now owned by the AOL empire) is sort a mutated cross between traditional chat and e-mail. When you get a friend?s ICQ number, and enter it in your copy of the program, you can see when your friend is online and running the program. If that?s the case, you can send her or him instant messages. Kids in the know assemble large list of friends, acquaintances, friends of friends, and can spend lots of time chatting away?without the hassles of chat rooms that are open to strangers.

Napster similarly builds personalized lists?this time, of people with similar musical tastes. It was created by a genuine teenager, 18 year old Shawn Fanning of San Mateo, CA,  to make it easier for computer users to locate MP3 music files.

In case you haven?t been paying attention, MP3s are music files, compressed to take up less space and download more quickly. The explosive rise of popularity of the format has worried the traditional music industry. MP3s aren?t illegal-- independent bands have started posting MP3s of their work on the Web, sometimes for free, sometimes charging a nominal fee per download, as a way of promoting their music outside the established record company/radio networks. More established acts may post a single song or parts of songs from their CDs sort of like the preview for a movie. In last month?s Softwary column we saw how easy it was to digitally record a school concert and post the music on the school?s Web site.

All these activities are legal?the creator of a musical performance choosing to use the Internet to share their music. Similarly, there?s no problem with users compressing copies of songs from CDs they own and using them in the new MP3 hardware devices, like Diamond?s Rio or Creative?s Nomad?smaller than a CD Discman, with no skips.

But posting the songs from a CD you?ve bought onto the Net for anyone to download, is music piracy?potentially costing the music industry sales of CDs. And there are suggestions that the term ?MP3? has replaced ?sex? as the most popular phrase on some Internet search engines. As a result, the industry organization RIAA (Recording Industry of American Association) has been trying to track down and shut down Web sites posting pirated MP3s for download.

Napster?s Web site doesn?t have any MP3s for download?just the Napster application. But when you run Napster on your computer, it connects to, and plugs you into the database of other Napster users who are online at this time. As I write, it claims to be in touch with 6,472 ?libraries?, containing some 880,000 songs?a total of about 3.5 gigabytes worth. Type in the name of a song or an artist, and you?re presented with a list of currently online Napster users with a copy of the song in the folders on their drives they?ve chosen to share, along with their connection speed. Not surprisingly, you can find lots of copies of current pop hits?but when I typed the names of country legend Hank Williams and jazz great John Coltrane in, there were also lots of choices. (But nothing for somewhat more obscure jazzer Ornette Coleman).

You?re not downloading the song from Napster, you?re downloading it directly from someone else who shares your taste in music?hence the text below the program?s icon: ?Napster Music Community?.

Not surprisingly, the RIAA is not impressed?and has filed suit against Napster. Equally unimpressed are some university and business network administrators. At Northwestern University, near Chicago, for example, network administrator Roger Safian suggested that Napster-related connections had grown to 20 to 30% of the traffic on their high-speed network. In response, the university blocked access to all Internet addresses. Similar steps have been reportedly taken by a number of other universities, and at least a few business networks.

One result has been student petitions to get access to Napster restored. But even if Napster is shut down as a result of the RIAA?s actions or its IP address is blocked, it may be too late to get any real control over this sort of music distribution. Stanford student David Weekly simply re-invented the specifications for a Napster server, and posted them on the Web ( any clever computer science students can put up their own servers.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan