Whose Music is it Anyway?

Napster, Gnutella, Reflecter: it sounds like the latest line of chocolate products. But these computer programs are revolutionizing the world of web music - and giving the record industry the fright of their lives.

You never know what a kid will come up with, given the proper tools.

Back in 1996, an uncle gave his nephew a computer; two years later, the nephew went off to college. Like most college students, he had a roommate; also like most college students, this roommate loved music and in 1998, music in the form of MP3 files was the only way to go. MP3 files are simply compressed music: a 3 minute song on a CD takes up about 32 megabytes (MB) of space; as an MP3 file, the same song takes up only 3 MB. The software that creates MP3 files weeds out the sounds which humans cannot hear. The missing sounds reduce the quality a little, but not enough to really matter, especially given the trade-off: a 32 MB file would take 2 hours to download, a 3 MB file takes a few minutes.

Yet as soon as technology solves one problem, another appears. While downloading the files is fast, finding them was not. To search the net can be a frustrating, time-consuming event: pages are hard to find, or missing altogether. Watching his roommate spend hours seeking new music, the nephew, better known now as Shawn Fanning, decided he would do something about it. So he wrote a program that made it all a lot easier, and called it "Napster", taking the nickname he would use in chat rooms. Fanning created a program that became the web site http://www.napster.com. The site lets you do three things: search for MP3 files, share your MP3 files, and chat with other people interested in doing the same.

Revolution and fightback

How does it work? To start, you download the Napster utility and install it on your computer. Then, you set up a directory on your computer that will be shared. Finally, you log on to the Napster site. Once on, the list of MP3 files in your shared directory is posted on the site. If someone wants a copy of your Metallica files, for example, they can then go onto your computer and download them directly onto their computer. Such sharing is now called peer-to-peer, or in the abbreviation-happy world of the net, P2P.

P2P sharing proved revolutionary. Fanning wrote the program in late 1998 and posted it on http://www.download. com, where it became an instant success. Taking note, he and his uncle, along with a few other interested individuals, formed a company in May 1999. By December, before the site was even public, Napster was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for copyright infringement.

When you buy music, you buy the right to listen to it and the right to copy it. In the old days, this right to copy was restricted by normal everyday life: how many copies would one person really make? Not enough to matter - until the net, MP3 and Napster, came along. With Napster, one song can be shared with and copied by thousands of other people. If they have a copy, why buy the original?

Fearing a serious loss in sales, the RIAA attacked last December. Musicians followed suit: the band Metallica forced Napster to shut out over 300,000 users from its site in May because they suspected them of piracy. Piracy occurs when one copies a creative work illegally, which is the question at the heart of the Napster story. Are the users infringing upon copyright laws? Napster's lawyer David Boies argues no.

P2P: privacy to piracy?

Boies makes the following points: sharing a file is "fair use" of that material, and users are not infringing. Taking his first point, fair use means you can use what you buy in a reasonable way. For example, copying your CD onto a cassette is fair use of that CD and the music on it.

Taking that idea one step farther, Boies argues that Napster users do not infringe copyright because they simply shift their own music to another "space". This "space shifting" argument may prove the meat of the matter. Do you have the right to share your music with as many people as you want, if that sharing results simply from moving your music from one space (the CD) to another (the computer)?

Along with those points, Boies tried to make a few others in late July at a hearing in San Francisco. He was shot down in short order by the judge, who was not buying any of his arguments. She ruled that Napster would have to shut down while awaiting trial. But her decision failed to stick, as the appeals court quickly over-ruled her decision. Napster remains online, but the battle is not over.

The spread of Gnutella

Regardless of what the courts decide, all agree that P2P sharing is here to stay. While Napster uses it for music files only, a similar product called "Gnutella" allows users to share any type of file. Gnutella, developed at AOL early this year by the Nullsoft team, proved too dangerous for the corporate world. Almost as quickly as the team posted the beta version, AOL pulled it offline.

Fortunately, the program was online long enough to get some attention. When AOL backed off, others moved forward. They reverse-engineered the software, and then went on to refine it. Gnutella differs from Napster in several ways. Besides allowing users to share more than music files, Gnutella allows peers to share without relying on a central computer. When you go online, Gnutella sends out a "hello, I'm here? Is anyone out there?" signal. If someone is out there using Gnutella, a connection is made. The second computer pings 8 other computers, which then ping 7 other computers, and so on down the line. All of these computers can now share files.

Gnutella moves the idea of P2P sharing one step further, but it suffers from that advance. If you are connected to too many computers, things can get a bit chaotic. If some of those computers have slow connections to the net, sharing is slower as well. Since you can share many different file types, finding the type you want is a bit harder. Without a central spot to organize everything, Gnutella users can find themselves wandering in the web wilderness. But a good idea is hard to keep down.

Programmers have already added a new twist, called "Reflecter", which allows a computer to act as a mini-server. This server will help to organize the sharing, but does not act as a central site like Napster. Despite the kinks that need ironing out, Gnutella will make it much harder to track sharing because there is no central site to target, and therefore shut down. Gnutella, and other open-source software like it (e.g., Freenet), may prove that once again freedom will reign on the net.