MP3 for all

Feb 9, 2000 at 12:00 am

In this turbulent new era of CD burners, illegal MP3s and knee-jerk lawsuits from the music industry, I probably shouldn’t admit this. But I must confess ... I don’t always pay for the records I listen to.

Ever since high school, I have occasionally borrowed albums from friends and made copies for my own collection. For example, I never actually purchased The Beatles’ White Album. But years ago, I nearly wore out a cassette dub of my friend’s original 1968 vinyl LP. To this day, I still know all the words to "Honey Pie."

I’ll tell you another secret. I’m not the only one who does this. Whether it’s trading a copy of the new Korn release at recess, or making a techno mix tape for your roommate’s brother, we music fans have always spread the wealth. Among friends, of course.

Agreed, swapping music with your pals is technically a violation of copyright law. But if it’s really a crime, well ... we’ve got a veritable black market going on in schools and living rooms nationwide.

In the past, the record industry has begrudgingly tolerated this practice (unless you count its infamous early-’80s "Home Taping Is Killing Music" publicity campaign). But with the onset of digital technology and MP3s, the catchy slogans are turning into cease-and-desist orders.

As most Netizens know, MP3 is a compressed audio format that enables CD-quality songs to be easily shared online, which has panicked the music industry.

By 1999, the record industry’s trade association, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), had already helped shut down several student-run MP3 sites stocked with hundreds of copyrighted songs. Last fall, Rolling Stone magazine noted that the RIAA’s efforts might be working: The publication’s admittedly unscientific attempts to find major label album downloads were a laughable failure.

But a few months ago, something changed.

Enter Napster, an unassuming, free (and downloadable) piece of software that’s so ingenious, it’s a wonder no one thought of it before. Written by Shawn Fanning, an 18-year-old undergrad at Boston’s Northeastern University, Napster creates an instant online community for the sole purpose of swapping MP3s over the Net. No more visits to your best friend’s house, armed with a stack of Pink Floyd records and a fresh box of TDKs. Napster automates the process.

When you first run it, Napster asks where you keep your own MP3 collection on your computer’s hard disk. Then, it connects you to all the other users on the Web who are running Napster. Once online, you can simultaneously search everyone else’s collections of songs, and download whatever you find. Meanwhile, other users can peruse your collection. You can even chat with other users to arrange for special requests and trades.

If this freewheeling environment sounds ripe for abuse, believe me: It is. I searched for Kid Rock and found the Detroit rocker’s Devil Without A Cause album. Not just one or two tracks, but the whole thing.

Do I need to mention that the record industry is not exactly thrilled with Napster? In a recent news article on, industry consultant Ken Krasner said, "These are the kind of guys that the RIAA wants to put a bullet through."

And true to form, the RIAA has already filed suit against for copyright infringement. "Napster is about facilitating piracy," said RIAA senior vice president Cary Sherman in a recent press release. "(It’s) trying to build a business on the backs of artists and copyright owners."

Maybe. But there’s no money being made, and arguably no legal basis to stop the company. doesn’t store any music on its own machines, and, in effect just provides a matchmaking service. It connects people to each other, and the transfer of songs occurs between them.

Individuals must decide for themselves whether to swap copyrighted songs or only trade public domain recordings. Obviously, some users are choosing to break the law.

But it seems to me that the RIAA is going after the wrong party. It’s music lovers like us who are the real culprits, and for doing what many of us have always done. It’s like the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll swap meet. How can we resist?

Apparently, we can’t. In a recent article in, product manager Brandon Barber admitted that Napster’s user base is "approaching being the fastest growing community in the history of the Net."

My experiences with Napster seem to confirm this – every time I’ve used it, thousands of others were online as well. Instead of suing Napster, perhaps the RIAA should start taking down some names.

In fact ... if it’s really our fault, maybe we should be flattered that the music industry hasn’t sent us all a subpoena. Of course, they would never do that to their most loyal customers.

Would they?