March 2, 2001 3:35 PM PST

Fans undaunted by Napster constraints

Although they're quick to defend the music file-swapping service that has given them free tunes for months, fans seem to have little loyalty to Napster as it battles the courts.

Within minutes of learning about the San Mateo, Calif.-based company's plans to voluntarily filter select songs from its service this weekend--in anticipation of a potentially stronger order from the court--people who use the site were expounding on how they could continue to trade free music if Napster is shuttered.

"I believe that the solution will be to use Napster as a contact point and afterwards to trade direct from user to user," wrote one Napster member, whose screen name is "Beatnik15." "We have to build our own personal servers and FTPs from our desktops and trade with others in that manner.

"Napster is to be used as a means of contacting other users and find out what common musical interests we share and proceed from that on to a straight desktop-to-desktop transferring of files," he continued. "This can be done privately and without interference by the record companies or the RIAA."

Analysts have long surmised that if the courts order Napster to shut down, its 64 million members would simply continue to trade music files for free through alternative means, which are generally more complicated and difficult to use but are slowly growing more popular as Napster's future remains cloudy.

In recent weeks, millions of people have downloaded software for alternative file-swapping services. According to statistics published on CNET Download.com--a software site owned by CNET Networks, publisher of News.com--Israel-based iMesh has seen the most downloads, with several versions of the popular Gnutella software coming close behind.

iMesh closely resembles Napster, with a central mechanism that helps link individuals who want to trade files. The company has said it believes it is safe from the same kind of lawsuit that targeted Napster and drove rival Scour out of business.

Gnutella, which is a wholly decentralized collection of individual computers, is even safer from lawsuits. But the amount of traffic likely to head for the network if Napster shuts down could clog that file-trading service to the point where it becomes almost unusable.

Alternative file-swapping networks were overwhelmed last July when a federal judge ordered Napster to block trades of copyrighted files. Since then, rivals have worked to simplify and improve their systems to handle more customers, which could face a migration of millions of file swappers in the event Napster is closed.

Although people are increasingly turning to other file-sharing services, Napster and one record label are betting that fans will pay for the convenience of accessing their music all in one location.

Napster has already made a deal with Bertelsmann, the parent company of BMG Entertainment, to create a subscription version that would charge customers a fee. The two companies are trying, so far unsuccessfully, to bring the other major labels onboard. Bertelsmann executives have said they plan to launch the service in June or July, but some analysts believe that is optimistic.

The true loyalty of Napster's audience will be tested when the site switches to a paid subscription model. But people on the message boards Friday seemed to have other ideas in mind than turning over their credit card numbers.

"The courts can't keep up with the software cloning process; like they're gonna have to go after Gnapster, and Knapster, and such," Napster user Greg Rossell said via e-mail. "I'm ripping CDs all day and just e-mailing files to my friends; Outlook is as much a distributor of copyrighted crap as any other" application.

Many Napster fans were upset about the potential ramifications of the lawsuit, worrying that if a judge declares the service illegal, then a judge may also declare similar technology and related hardware illegal.

"These lawsuits are really stupid; it's a big waste of time. I mean, think about MP3 players (portables, etc.) and people with burners; they all use MP3s for music," said a frequent user of Napster's own comment forums. "Does it really matter where they get them from? I mean what are the courts gonna do--shut down Napster? Then everyone moves onto another popular site/program just like it. It's not like the courts are going to shut down the Internet because a few record companies are pissed off."

Another fan chimed in: "My question is...what's the difference if you record a song off the radio and give it to your friends? Is that copyright infringement? What's next, recording labels suing against the use of recording devices?"

 

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