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French Version

Digital piracy : Evolution or revolution?

Napster piracy was plumbing a music selection of not only hot hits but also of rare and out of print tracks that music collectors the world over put up to share. It was a revolution.

JORDAN (Star) - Online entertainment piracy is significantly altering the methodologies of music and movie delivery. For 2001 sales of blank recordable CDs outsold prerecorded music CDs for the first time ever. Origins of the shift can be traced to a small piece of software known simply as "Napster" which allowed friends to share music files over the net. It began slowly but its design allowed an increased user base to equate to an increase in availability and service.

What began as a small convenience program to allow friends to share files grew quickly because it was created and distributed for free. Its birth is revolutionizing an industry that feared its coming. The end results remain to be seen, but the direction of that change is being shaped now. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) brought suit and killed Napster in its original form. The RIAA has now begun to squeeze every file sharing software service available, instituting a whole array of demands on users and providers of the services.

Although Napster brought piracy home in a nice neat interface, it is likely something like Napster would have eventually occurred in one form or another. But in those earliest of days people who never even thought about the idea of accessing music files from the 'net' found themselves rewarded with ever more diverse titles. Napster made it easy. But Napster's methodology also meant as its popularity grew so did the number and diversity of its titles. Napster piracy was plumbing a music selection of not only hot hits but also of rare and out of print tracks that music collectors the world over put up to share. It was a revolution.

Besides the initial excitement at having such easy access to a myriad of musical sources something began to register very quickly: This music was free. Napster provided an avenue to get music without the anguish many experienced over prices at their local record shop. The music industry was completely out of the loop. Napster's pure and simple sharing became a crime as a file shared once was shared one million times through this digital distribution network. Artists like Metallica began to cry foul. The RIAA, caught a bit unaware at first, had been hot for Napster for a good six months negotiating and working a variety of legal avenues to try and stop the service. With major recording stars like Metallica and others joining them on the front lines they were sure they had the moral high ground.

What was curious about Napster was its simple design and even more remarkable conception. As the courts moved in and the RIAA began to put a strangle hold on the service, users swamped the system growing the archive into hundreds of millions of songs, getting what they could before it was gone. The application became a springboard for a new type of internet usage. Sharing systems were developed which allowed for downloads from multiple sources that increased download speeds. Now not only audio but also video and executable files became available, meaning nearly anything you could imagine could be found and downloaded. And a lesson learned from Napster's legal troubles now keeps files stored locally instead of at centrally administered sources.

Napster was about music but high bandwidth meant a proliferation of movie files available via a new compression scheme known as DivX. Its controversy was two fold. One, the DVD protection scheme was being broken and two the massive data stored on DVDs was crunched into single CD sized files much like the MP3 crushed audio files ten fold, making its movement across the net much easier.

Napster was crushed, although it has reemerged as a pay service with a fraction of its original users. Its near immediate replacement, Morpheus, enjoyed a similar arc. It is now undergoing radical changes with the latest version of its software promising artists, "For the first time, artists, publishers, labels and music rights associations can take advantage of technology instead of technology taking advantage of them." The RIAA is after Morpheus and similar to Napster, Morpheus is instituting new methods they hope will head off potential death. Their new software actually deletes files on a home PC accessed a predetermined number of times. Curiously these efforts are all geared toward music files, not the growing number of films available on the service.

There is a reason for this. As initially discussed the audio and video branches of the entertainment tree approached online piracy, and piracy from its earliest days, very differently. They share a common fear but the video/film industry has chosen not to slap the faces of those that want its wares. They've chosen to provide more tempting packages of supplementals in their product. They reduced prices so that at times full length DVDs that may well come with a complete soundtrack to the film can cost several JD less than a soundtrack alone. In short they've made a product better and cheaper. And although pirates still pluck the films from the net, many are choosing to buy direct.

Although the services make file access relatively simple there is still a lot of work involved in downloading, converting, and likely burning of the material to CD. Hours may be spent to get your favorite album or movie off the net and onto a CD. Most of those who now find themselves 'pirates' admit they'd prefer to purchase the material direct for a variety of reasons, but primarily for its slick, complete, and easy package.

But they insist they will continue to do the work when they feel they are taken advantage of. The music industry's design is to integrate itself into the file sharing networks and force users to comply with its demands. The video industry is forcing no one, but instead providing better product at a lower cost. It is no wonder the DVD player is the fastest selling consumer electronic in history-the product and its software are being sophisticatedly marketed. The record industry, on the other hand, saw itself decline for the first time in a decade as industry giants such as EMI are being forced to lay off workers. The RIAA has trumpeted its victory in its battle with Napster. It seems the war, however, is far from over.

J. Scott Tynes
The Star

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