The Digital Beat: The RIAA Can Stop Napster, But Not the World

September 5, 2001 12:00 AM ET

A few weeks ago, I caught Radiohead at Liberty State Park in New York. It was a memorable show, great set list, great Thom, all taking place outside against the awesome backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. Boy would I have liked to have a copy of some of those performances on video. Now I do because of Morpheus.

Morpheus (www.musiccity.com) is the heir apparent to Napster, the sunken and sorrowful program that shows no signs of resurrection. In the past few weeks, in fact, a host of Napster alternatives have been monopolizing the scene. A recent survey of the Top Ten programs being sucked down at CNet's Download.com showed that a full six of the ruling wares are Napster alternatives. And, check this, they're not just similar to Napster; they're better than Napster. The revolution is over. Bootlegging is now a part of life. Thank, quite literally, the world.

The reason: Many of these newfangled peer-to-peer file trading programs are coming from outside the U.S., putting them and their programmers outside the jurisdiction of the Recording Industry Association of America. Morpheus uses a technology out of Holland. iMesh comes from Israel. OpenNap, the "open source" version of Napster, will potentially be even further out of bounds. That program is looking to set up camp in Sealand, a huge concrete structure rising out of the Atlantic Ocean that considers itself its own high tech country -- a country, no less, that welcomes both bootleg and gambling sites.

Even if the Recording Industry Association of America ultimately prevails over Napster -- meaning that it shuts it down once and for all -- what's it going to do about the rest of the world? Not much, I'd guess. The only next step, and this has been the next step for a while, is for the RIAA to further pursue its own fledgling Secure Digital Music Initiative. SDMI would address the fact that music distributed in the MP3 compression format can be played on any of a number of compatible devices, regardless of whether the downloaded music was pirated. Sony, EMI, Time Warner and the other companies behind SDMI are hoping an eventual technology will, following an initial grace period, prevent illegally reproduced music from being played on the next generation of digital audio players.

For the RIAA, this is the only way to secure royalties over the Internet for major-label artists. For consumers, this means that playing a bootleg Limp Bizkit MP3 could become difficult in some cases, though hardly impossible. According to grassroots organizations like the Electronic Freedom Foundation's Consortium for Audio Free Expression, unsigned and indie bands might have the most to lose, because they would only be able to reach listeners with SDMI compliant players.

Of course, with the proliferation of other file-trading programs like Morpheus, there's simply no way that DIY artists (or their fans) will be out of commission. In this sense, Napster's fate is almost moot since there will certainly always be some way for people to get around the RIAA's initiatives. All surfers have to do is head offshore. And they don't even have to leave their desks to get there.

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