Hackers making Napster 'irrelevant'

Can the RIAA stop the digital music? Even if Napster is stopped cold, Gnutella has made that legal battle irrelevant, say H2K attendees

Musicians and academics debated the right and wrong of sharing digital music on the Internet at the Hacking on Planet Earth 2000 (H2K) conference Saturday.

While both the panelists and the crowd decried the music industry's hold on artists and consumers, artists themselves were unsure of allowing the wholesale copying of their music.

"I have not made up my mind yet," said Jello Biafri, former lead singer for the Dead Kennedys, during a panel discussion on the topic. "I want to get away from the black-and-white depiction of the problem. It's not just Metallica and Dr. Dre vs. kids in dorm rooms."

Judging by the attention paid to the issue at H2K, it's also the hackers against the music industry. The five major companies in the music industry own 90 percent of the music on the market today. Yet their hold on the market is threatened by the increasing use of the MP3 music format -- used by hackers for years -- and the startup service Napster, which has turbo-charged the file-sharing phenomenon.

Despite the Recording Industry Association of America's pending lawsuit against Napster that will most likely set a legal precedent regarding how much a company is allowed to aid the copying of music, several on the panel stressed that Napster is a moot point.

"We don't need Napster anymore," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of culture and communication at New York University, during the panel discussion. "There is enough other file sharing systems out there to make it irrelevant."

Already, a group of hackers and programmers have created a utility known as Gnutella that -- while harder to use than Napster -- distributes the information regarding what songs are on whose computers within the entire network. Originally developed by an America Online subsidiary -- and later cancelled -- Gnutella is now being developed by various groups of hackers. The fact that Napster keeps its directory of songs on a single server is what has opened up the company to a lawsuit.

Instead of suing a single company such as Napster to stop the copying of music, the music industry would have to sue every user of Gnutella to end its use.

While consumers may be doing something that goes beyond fair use into the realm of illegality, Vaidhyanathan stressed that it's the music industry's fault.

"The MP3 movement is a rational revolt of consumers," he said. "If the price of CDs would come down to where they should be, this problem would go away." Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission found that the music companies had colluded with each other to artificially prop up the price of CDs by almost $5 (£3.34).

"The great thing about MP3 and Napster is that they poke holes in the music industry's plans to triple wrap all popular culture in copyright law, electronic locks, and contract law, with click-wrap licences," said Vaidhyanathan.

"Controlling access is what they have been dreaming about," he said "Their dream is to have a metered system, because every used CD that is bought is a loss to them -- letting your friend borrow a CD is a loss to them."

Artists still have reservations about putting all their music on the Internet, however.

"The artists that are anti-MP3 are the ones that are big enough to negotiate their own contracts," said "Laslow," the host of Earthlink's Internet radio network.

At least one band on the panel embraced the Internet effect. "MP3 is allowing us to generate fans," said James Hanna, a member of the independent New York rock group Theta Wave State. "Setting up a Web site and letting people download music for free has really helped us."

Even so, the thought of living off performances -- they way they are doing now -- does not appeal to the members of the band.

"We are not living off our work right now -- we have day jobs," said Keith Hopkin, who has played together with Hanna for six years.

The Dead Kennedys' Biafri is adamantly against a performance-only income, where recorded music would merely be a promotional vehicle.

"Being a wandering minstrel is not the answer," he said. "The free distribution and copying is unstoppable. The only thing an artist can do is ask for some f**king respect from their fans."

In other words, buy the CD.

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