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Napster's Last Gasp?
Posted Apr 1, 2002 Print Version     Page 1of 1

April 2002|Napster's been shut down since July, but plenty of other programs have stepped in where the beleaguered file-sharing service left off. Which means that unauthorized music-not to mention movies, graphics, and software-is still there for the taking for anyone with a computer and a broadband connection (or the patience to put up with molasses-slow modem transfers).

It also means that the music and movie industries have expanded their legal attacks beyond Napster. But Hollywood seems more interested now in stopping the trading of unlicensed files at the source, by implementing copy-protection on CDs and DVDs and asking the government to order copy protection software or hardware in all consumer electronic devices.

Napster, which spread like wildfire in late 1999 and early 2000, slowly ground to a halt after the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the five major music companies filed suit against it. Despite an infusion of cash from BMG (which agreed to drop its lawsuit if Napster could successfully filter unauthorized music and create a successful pay-for-play service), Napster has yet to get beyond limited beta testing of its subscription offering.

Peer-to-Peer Takes Over
In the meantime, peer-to-peer clients like Kazaa, Morpheus, and Grokster have picked up the slack. Running on the FastTrack network, they promised that once a user downloaded the software, access to the network could never be shut down. The RIAA suspected otherwise, and joined the Motion Picture Association of America in filing suit against them in late 2001.

The RIAA's suspicions may be true. In March, the Dutch company that owns and licenses FastTrack denied a Morpheus software upgrade and locked Morpheus users out. In response, Morpheus switched to a Gnutella-based client, joining LimeWire, Bearshare, and a handful of others on that peer-to-peer network. None of the Gnutella services have been sued, lending credence to their claims that they're truly unstoppable.

While FastTrack featured more users and files than Gnutella prior to Morpheus' exile, Morpheus users seem to be more loyal to the software than to the network. In the week after FastTrack gave Morpheus the boot, CNet reported that Morpheus' new Gnutella client had been downloaded more than 16.5 million times, nearly three times as often as the latest version of Kazaa in the same time.

Napster still promises to introduce its subscription version soon, but they've been promising that for more than a year. When, or if, they return, they'll be competing not only with the free services but also with MusicNet-a joint venture between Warner Music, BMG, and EMI-and pressplay, Sony and Universal's partnership. It's hard to imagine people flocking to the pay-for-play services (which put limits on what you can do with the music you download, meaning that you essentially rent most of it) while Gnutella and FastTrack are still going strong; neither MusicNet nor pressplay are making their usage numbers public.

The Battle Goes On
The persistence of the free services is surely a big part of why the music and movie industries are turning their attention to copy protection (or, as the entertainment industry likes to call it, "content protection"). That's sparking a debate that could prove to be even more contentious than the debate over file-sharing. First, there are well-publicized instances of copy-protected CDs that won't play in some computers and components (the discs don't conform to Red Book standards). But if anti-piracy efforts mean that consumers can't even space-shift their music or make a legitimate copy of a movie for a family member, then we might see real resistance.

As one avid downloader told the New York Times, "being treated like a criminal makes me want to act like one," even though he claimed to have paid for all 1,137 songs on his iPod.

And the music industry found itself on the other side of the copyright debate in February when the California judge allowed Napster's request for discovery on whether or not the record labels indeed owned the copyrights for all of the music they say they do, and whether they've used that control unfairly to prevent competition on the online arena.

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