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The Digital Beat: Napster Can’t Stop What It Started

So Napster is having trouble filtering out copyright-protected songs. Go figure. Sit up here on Grandpa’s knee and let me tell you a story about the old days that might shed light on the intrepidness of fans. Back when I was a teenager, kids had to work for contraband. My friend Eric would ride his Huffy dirt bike ten miles in the hot sun just to buy used porn from a toothless old guy at the flea market. I myself would scour fanzines for bootlegs, sending off cash to blindly get some Rush concert bootlegs from Finland — bootlegs which usually sounded like shit, but so what?

Point is, we did what we had to do to get what we wanted. We sneaked out. We rode far. We took risks. And this is precisely what’s happening online. It’s really been an amazing few weeks in the annals of technical cleverness. No sooner had Napster been ordered to block hundreds of thousands of online songs, programmers were hacking together warez that scrambled titles in pig Latin. Icenay orkway!

Lesson learned: The kids are smart. Because of this, a kosher Napster is really an oxymoron. Think about it: The company has given techies over a year to hack, prod, needle and push at the program. As a result, we’ve seen open source Napsters (OpenNap), Napster alternatives (Gnutella, Scour, Aimster), and this is just the beginning. It’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, for Napster’s small team of coders and consultants to outperform an entire friggin’ planet of hackers — hackers who are working on the issue long after the Napster employees cash their paychecks and head home.

Thus far, the hackers have been experimenting with variations on a theme: cloaking song files so that they sneak past Napster’s filter. Cloaking, or encrypting, files is nothing new online, of course. As a result, people have had years to perfect their skills of stealth. The techniques range from simply renaming files to encrypting them as other warez. If Napster really wants to filter more effectively, then it should block songs by the artist name, not by the song titles. Problem is, even this really wouldn’t be totally effective, especially since such artists like Beck and Smashing Pumpkins have made MP3 songs available for free.

Though Napster’s traffic is down by nearly sixty percent, expect more comedy as the company struggles to totally eradicate the bootlegs. After U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel issued an injunction requiring Napster to remove or block copyrighted songs within three days of notification, Napster CEO Hank Barry had this to say: “Napster will follow the district court’s order and act within the limits of our system to exclude their copyrighted material from being shared.”

Translation: The company is fucked and it knows it. It simply doesn’t have the brains or brawn to put an end to this massive cultural revolution/exchange. That’s the great irony of all this, I suppose. Napster created a monster and that monster is the fans. And the fans are too smart, passionate and skilled to be stopped.


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