Music From The Internet

By Dan Willmore

How do people download free or low cost music from the internet? Is this legal, or not? Most people have seen the word Napster in the headlines about a hundred times over the past year, and most have heard names like Grokster, Kaazaa, and Morpheus before usually having to do with court actions over copyright infringement or some such. But to most people all the claims and counterclaims seemed as confusing as the technology was complex.

Worse, it seems that every new technology tends to divide people. For instance, right now in America there are millions of technologically adept folks who download music every day, but there are millions more who think that only experts can handle it. Since a lot of people have been asking me about all this, I thought I would try to explain it.

Every new technology divides people.

None of it is actually hard. I have always been reluctant to waste money, so I have never gone out and bought a lot of records. Instead I tended to listen to what the radio stations played and not go much further than that. Then about a year ago I went to the website for Morpheus, at morpheus.com, and I loaded their software directly onto my computer. Now the program lets me sit at home and find everything from BB King to modern groups like Nickleback, which I heard on the radio and liked, or even Victory Not Vengeance, which one of my students recommended. I am starting to feel hip, and running the tunes through my headphones helps drown out the conversations of people next to me in the office.

How can software designers get away with this? What about copyright infringement, let alone theft? The whole thing is rather surprising. As you would expect, copyright works for compact disks the same way it works for books. If you buy a CD with a tune on it, you only have a right to play it for yourself, and if you copy that tune and let people download it off a web site, that is giving away copyrighted material without permission, and that is illegal. If you built such a website, the police should be able to locate the computer where the website is hosted, and then turn it off.

Nonetheless, every day somebody invents something new. A few years ago a company called Napster started. The word 'Napster' stood for 'New Artist Profile', and it was supposed to be a way for young musicians to reach a wider audience without having to be sponsored by a big record company. According to theory, young people in Toledo could pile their drums in the garage and then record a tune. Next, the new artists could convert the tape into a computer file and keep it on the hard drive of their computer. Finally, the new artists would send information about the name and address of their tune to a central computer at the Napster company, which would record it in a huge database. The file would also include the internet protocol address of the new artists' computer, where the actual file of the tune would be kept. The idea was that the Napster computer could contain the names and IP addresses by which millions of new tunes could be found.

Then Napster would help other people find music by these 'new artists.' For example, if a boy in Akron wanted to learn what young musicians were recording in Toledo, he would turn on his Napster software and enter the keyword 'Toledo.' The command would go to the central Napster computer, which would look for entries that included the word 'Toledo,' and give the boy a list of tunes. The boy would click on the titles, one by one, and tell the Napster software to connect his computer with the computer of the people who had that tune among their computer files. Napster would only help one person on one computer find the information and address of someone on another computer who had something he wanted. Napster never actually hosted the tune; instead, the tune would move through the internet, between the two computers and leaving the central computer alone.

Well, few things work out the way people expect. Somewhere there probably is a garage band playing fine new stuff and recording it on their computer, and somewhere there is probably a fine young man who wants to hear new music from a band about which no one has ever heard, but most people don't want to hear unknowns; instead, they want to hear music from artists who are already popular. Above all, they want to hear famous tunes, and they don't want to pay twelve or fifteen dollars for a new compact disk. Soon millions of young people began 'ripping' music from popular CDs and trading them through the Napster database. College administrators began to complain that their computer networks were so full of kids downloading music that there was no bandwidth left to look at web pages, even for school business such as course registration. And CD sales began to decline, dramatically.

Most people remember that the big record companies went to court and sued Napster. Most people remember that Napster offered to pay the record companies a billion dollars yes, $1,000,000,000 to settle the case. Moreover, most readers will remember that the record companies declined, and the judge shut down Napster. One might think that would have been the end of the story.

Napster offered a billion dollars to settle the case.

Of course, it only ended the first phase. The Spanish like to say "Mala Yerba Nunca Muere" -- Weeds Never Die and the public still wanted free music. Naturally, somebody stepped forward to meet the demand. The new download companies are called Morpheus, Grokster, and Kaazaa. Their software uses 'peer-to-peer' searches. That is, neither Morpheus, nor Grokster, nor Kaazaa, keeps a central database. Instead, they merely offer use of a search engine, a program on their computer that allows people to search through the computers of other people.

Thus, we might compare a program like Morpheus to a kind of telescope that allows a user to look into the computers of other people who have the Morpheus program on and running at that moment. Morpheus does not hold the music file, and Morpheus does not hold the name of the music file, and Morpheus does not hold the IP address of the computer on which the music file can be found. Instead, Morpheus just walks through all of the computers that are running the Morpheus program, and looks for a file that matches the data that the home user wanted. It might be a JPG image of the Mona Lisa, or a sound file of a political speech, or even a brand new tune by a garage band in Akron, Ohio. If the home user actually requests a copyrighted song by a popular group, well, whose fault is that? Neither Morpheus, nor Grokster, nor Kazaa told them to go looking for it.

The program allowed users to find files inside the computers of other people who were using the program.

I am sure that you can see why there is still a conflict. As could be expected, the record companies think the whole issue is black and white. Sony and Warner's and the other big guns of the music business feel that the new search programs exist only to steal their material, and they are fighting to shut down the search programs. On the other hand, a lot of young people insist that the garage band in Akron is still the heart of the matter. I have heard several people observe that most music comes from five or six international combines, and that no band ever reaches the top ten unless some corporation has invested several million dollars to buy advertising. Today many people believe that the big companies only want to end peer-to-peer searching because they want to protect their control over what we hear.

At the dawn of 2003, Morpheus, Grokster, and Kazaa still have the upper hand. Sony and Warner and the other big guns of the music biz are suing as hard as they can, but most of the new programs were formed in countries like Russia and Vanuatu, where the courts are less than sympathetic to rich American corporations. It will be a long time before the music industry finds a way to prove guilt legally, and it may be longer before they can get all the courts of all the nations in the world to support them. When they do, enterprising hackers will probably find a new way to trade files, and the arms race between corporations and college students will begin again.

Copyright 2003 Dan Willmore

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