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Streaming Media
Digital Music Update: Apple Lets Loose, Grokster Wins in Court, and College Students Pay Up
Posted Jul 1, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Say what you will about Apple; they know how to stage a product launch. While the two major label-sponsored music download services, PressPlay and MusicNet, still languish in relative obscurity—just ask your favorite teenager if she's heard of either one, and then ask if she's heard of Kazaa—Apple introduced its new iTunes music store in late April to the kind of fanfare that Steve Jobs has become the master of mustering up. Sure, Mac users might still comprise only 3% of the personal computer populace, but you'd never guess that from the press that the announcement garnered. (Who knows if Roxio, which purchased PressPlay in May and Napster earlier this year, will be able to drum up the same kind of publicity when it rolls out its new service.)

Both Mac users and their guru like to claim that all the attention is deserved because Apple products are better than the rest, market share be damned. This time 'round, they just might be right. With more than 200,000 songs available from all the major labels available for 99 cents apiece, the iTunes music store offers the most comprehensive and easiest-to-use legitimate download service to date. Users of the new iTunes 4 player have single-click access to the store, which includes material from previous online holdouts like the Eagles and Dr. Dre, and downloading's a breeze with one-click purchasing.

Despite the still-high per-song price—a buck a track is a lot to pay, even though you can make unlimited copies of single songs and up to ten copies of full-album playlists—Apple has figured out that most people don't want to be trapped in a monthly subscription service. Plus, there are plenty of catalog titles available at reasonable per-album prices starting at $9.99. Files are delivered in 128KB AAC format, and the audiophile community seems split on whether or not that delivers sound quality that beats 192KB MP3.

Perhaps most interesting about Apple's approach is that it flies in the face of conventional wisdom that says only kids and college students are interested in downloading music. Sitting atop the list of most-downloaded artists in the first two weeks of the service are boomer favorites like U2, Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, and Sting. Apple claims that its total sales in the first month exceeded 3.5 million songs. If you can't beat Kazaa and Grokster at their own games, Apple seems to be saying, then maybe it's time to switch playing fields.

A similar approach has worked for EMusic, a subscription-based service that specializes in independent labels and catalog titles. By avoiding the major labels and megastars and focusing instead on punk, jazz, and other genres outside the mainstream, the service has attracted 70,000 members who can download unlimited MP3s for as little as $9.99 a month. And unlike PressPlay, MusicNet, and even iTunes, EMusic places no restrictions at all on what users can do with the files once they're downloaded.

For what it's worth, Kazaa, Grokster, and other havens for unauthorized filesharing don't appear to be going away soon. In a blow to the music and motion picture industries, which managed to shut down Napster and maintain that filesharing networks are partners in crime with the users who download copyrighted material, a Los Angeles district court judge ruled in April that peer-to-peer networks can't be held responsible for their users' conduct. Comparing the RIAA's case against Grokster and Morpheus to the 1984 Sony Betamax case, Judge Stephen Wilson said that even though the filesharing services are "generally aware" that many of their users download copyrighted material, direct knowledge of users' activities could not be proven, and the networks provide access to enough non-infringing material to make them legitimate. The RIAA said it would appeal the decision.

True peer-to-peer services like Morpheus, Grokster, and Kazaa (which operates from the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu and wasn't directly affected by the court's decision) differ from Napster in that they don't require users to go through a central, network-maintained directory.

Of course, the RIAA and MPAA are still finding ways to go after illegal music downloading. Another district court decision in April upheld the RIAA's claim that it could rely on provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to demand that ISPs like Verizon turn over the names of suspected copyright infringers. The RIAA also settled a lawsuit against four New York college students it accused of running a P2P network to trade music files; each student agreed to pay between $12,000 and $17,500 rather than face the prospect of paying damages of up to $100 million had a court decided in favor of the music industry trade group.

One of the students said that, while he maintains the network he helped set up at Rensselaer Polytechnic was legal, it was easier to settle than fight. "I don't really have the resources to defend this case in court, so I don't have much of a choice," Jesse Jordan told CNN. "Plus, I'm very busy with college right now."

Last fall, the RIAA and MPAA sent letters to colleges around the country demanding that the institutions assist in the crackdown on filesharing, and a May incident at Ohio State University indicates that schools might be ready to do just that, though not necessarily out of any affinity for the entertainment industry. OSU police raided dorm rooms and seized five computers from students the university claimed were draining ten percent of the schools Internet bandwidth with DirectConnect filesharing software, which bypassed the school's routers.

And if you're a music downloader, don't be surprised if you get a message from the labels the next time you go prowling for tunes. In May, the RIAA began using the instant messaging capabilities in Kazaa and Grokster to deliver messages to users saying "When you offer music on these systems, you are not anonymous and can be easily identified."

Maybe a buck a song isn't so bad after all.

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