Napster, the popular online service for exchanging digital music files, has been slapped with a court order to stop handling copyrighted music -- but industry observers and insiders expressed doubt Thursday that the court action would have much impact on online music sharing.
"The music industry's victory over Napster is a short one," said Ernesto Schmidt, chief executive of Peoplesound, which distributes online music by emerging bands. "You chop off one head, and five others grow."
Napster is by far the most popular means for such sharing -- or piracy, depending on your point of view -- but other means exist, and may be more difficult to control. For example, users can exchange music files via FTP servers, the Usenet bulletin-board system or Gnutella, a decentralised system similar to Napster.
Most recently Napster-style service Scour.com has grabbed headlines by making major films available for download as well as music and other content.
An application called Napigator allows the Napster client software to log into music servers that are not under Napster's control, meaning that even if Napster itself were to disappear tomorrow, users could still download music with its software.
Saying the recording industry is likely to prevail in its copyright infringement case against Napster, US district judge Marilyn Patel's ruling could, in effect, shut down the free music swapping service. Patel ruled unexpectedly from the bench immediately after a two-hour hearing, telling a packed courtroom her order would keep Napster from "copying or assisting or enabling or contributing to the copy or duplication of all copyrighted songs and musical compositions of which the plaintiffs hold rights".
The decision was hailed as a victory over piracy by the music industry, but most observers agreed that, right or wrong, online music sharing is here to stay.
"Napster is going to die, but you can't kill Gnutella," said Peoplesound's Schmidt. "The industry needs to take heart and create its own Napster. That would free them of the shackles of radio and television -- today you can't sell music unless it's played by major radio stations. The Internet provides the most fantastic, open, viral network for promoting music."
In the long term, a Napster defeat in court could harm record companies by encouraging them to pursue their cautious approach to the Internet -- and allowing piracy to continue to flourish.
"The longer-term solution to music piracy on the Net will only be reached when the major labels make digital music conveniently available to consumers at reasonable prices," said David Phillips, chief executive of online music label iCrunch.com. He sees the current efforts of labels such as EMI and BMG as inadequate, with their high prices and difficult-to-use music formats.
But if such labels don't come up with an attractive online offering, they can expect their music to continue to be distributed for free. "Eventually the major labels will need to move more aggressively to put in legitimate downloadable products," Phillips said. "There's a lot of pressure on them."
Rio, the music division of S3 and maker of the pioneering Rio MP3 music player, said it supports the action against Napster, but will continue to push for legitimate ways of distributing copyrighted music online.
"You need pioneers or pirates to push any new technology into the public eye, but then the big boys get in there and make their solutions," said a Rio spokesman. "Let's hope this stimulates the music industry into finding a solution for online music distribution."
He added that Napster will probably survive as a way of distributing files -- just probably not music files.
ZDNet's Lisa M. Bowman contributed to this report.
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