The Digital Beat: Songbird's Limited Wingspan

May 16, 2001 12:00 AM ET

Britney Spears is getting hit a lot more than one time baby. According to Songbird (www.iapu.org), a new program that purports to let users track down how many people are bootlegging specific songs on selected sites, Britney's first single is (as I write this) available through exactly 486 people on Napster. Though Songbird empowers fans and, more importantly, artists to quantify copyright infringement, the nagging question is: so what?

Songbird at least has good intentions. The program was created by a twenty-year-old classical pianist in Provo, Utah named Travis Hill who wanted to give songwriters like himself a way to fight back against MP3 swappers. For the time being, the program works exclusively on Napster, the obvious hotspot for song trading online. Ultimately, Hill says, the program should work with a variety of peer-to-peer services like Gnutella or FreeNet.

For now, amateur sleuths can put the warez to the test on Napster by simply downloading Songbird for free and searching by artist name and song title. Unlike a regular search on Napster, which seeks information on a limited number of computer servers, Songbird has the added benefit of being able to scan around ninety different Napster servers at a time. The search results can be organized in an Excel spreadsheet, making it a neat way to assemble a list of violators. But then what comes next?

Ostensibly, a Songbird snoop could fire off a litany of instant messages to all the bootleggers, but that's pretty much a bark with no bite. Or the snoop could send the list to Napster's authorities, who are required to remove the offending material from the site. But Napster doesn't need Songbird's help in this regard. The company is already being furnished with copyright violations by all the major labels in the recording business. Napster has been trying to remove these songs from its servers. The filtering has had some effectiveness; some reports put Napster traffic down by as much as forty percent.

So, really, it's not like a bunch of pissy emails from relatively unknown songwriters are going to make much of a dent. How many people are bootlegging Travis Hill anyway? This is just the latest example of salmon swimming up a waterfall. A little tattletale action will hardly stop the people who have the will and ingenuity to get the songs they want. There are quite a bit of determined people within that sixty percent who still surf Napster, not to mention Napigator, Aimster, LimeWire, etc. etc. etc.

It's time that even the amateur songwriters got the message: MP3 swapping is here to stay. Rather than fight it, find some way to use it to your own advantage. VCRs didn't kill the movie industry. Cassettes didn't kill the recording industry. And digital bootlegs won't kill the radio star. It's time to stop worrying so much about getting ripped off. Instead, artists like Hill should take the energy of Songbird and put it into reaching fans not turning them away.

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