New site enters online music controversy

SwapStation lets you exchange your MP3 music files across the Net, but may be headed for legal rocks

In a potentially controversial move, a new site launched Tuesday offers users the ability to exchange MP3 files, including recordings of licensed artists.

SwapStation allows registered members to swap MP3 files with other members via email. Users enter any MP3 files that they possess and are willing to exchange along with the MP3s that they are looking for. The site matches members who have similar MP3 requests. Members then email the required file to the other user, receiving their own requests by return.

Members can also list the MP3 files they own and those that they wish to obtain on a secure personal Web page. This allows users to search for a desired song or artist and visit other members' home pages.

Like Napster, which offers a similar exchange service, SwapStation is keen to point out that the files are merely transferred through the site and are not housed on any of the company's servers. However Napster is currently being sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which is charging the site with copyright infringement and alleges that it has created a base for music piracy on an unprecedented scale.

SwapStation assures its members that its service is in fact perfectly legal. The company claims that under copyright protection a person who is the legitimate legal owner of a copyrighted digital file may properly exchange that file with another person, in the same way that owners of CDs are entitled to exchange titles. But this rests on the assumption that the original owner of the file does not keep a copy of the MP3 exchanged.

Sites such as this operate in an extremely grey area and David Martin, director of anti-piracy at The British Phonographic Industry (BPI), points out that "any MP3 files that have not been authorised and cleared for distribution are illegal, and transferring them would be a criminal offence."

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