For Recording Industry, Napster Is Just the Tip of Piracy Iceberg


By his own account, 20-year-old Bradley Coleman, a junior at Rutgers University in New Jersey, is a clean-cut college kid. “I’m a very moral person,” he said. “I never steal, I don’t gossip. However . . .”

Mention the Internet--music in particular--and the computer science major dishes a guilt-riddled confession: “I’m a die-hard pirate on the Net.”

Coleman has downloaded nearly 2,000 free songs in the form of MP3s--musical files that can be sent from one computer to another, much like e-mail. He plucked a good chunk of those cuts from Napster, a service that allows its users to trade music without paying a cent.


And while Napster is the most prominent target of the record industry’s anti-piracy efforts on the Internet (and, indeed, the subject of a pending merger with a record company), it is but one of many places where people can go for free music.

And trying to shutter them all, industry experts say, is like playing a no-win game of virtual whack-a-mole: Pound away at one site and another one (or 10) will pop up somewhere else.

“It’s obvious that things like Napster will continue forever, and it’s impossible to try to control them,” said Shellac guitarist and Chicago-based recording engineer Steve Albini. “I have absolutely no complaint with Napster and other protocols for exchanging music. They are free exchanges. There’s absolutely no money involved. To my ears, it’s as harmless as making a cassette copy to trade with a friend.”

Albini raises a key distinction that separates Napster and its ilk from the traditional “pirates” or bootleggers: No one, it seems, makes any money from bartering music via the Web.

But record-industry heavyweights, translating all of that free song traffic into lost income, see the piracy question in entirely opposite terms, and they are still trying to shut down Napster in federal court for copyright infringement.

Meanwhile, Coleman, like many Napster users, admits mixed emotions over his downloading jones. “I would never steal so much as a Tootsie Roll in real life,” he said. “But the Internet is all about getting something for nothing.”


And it is that Webhead manifesto--”something for nothing”--that promises to keep the Internet’s free music suppliers operating well after Napster either closes or morphs into a subscription service.

“The thing that really ticks me off about this Napster thing is that they are thieves, period,” said C. Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. “People think they’re ripping off the record companies, and who minds ripping them off? Maybe what they don’t recognize is when they use Napster, the artists, the studios, the engineers--the entire food chain that’s involved in this--is harmed. And we’ve got to sensitize people to that fact.”

Still, Greene acknowledges that the record industry has created a lot of ill will over the last two decades by overcharging consumers for mediocre CDs--and that free-music sites, legal or no, are likely here to stay.

“It’s cutting off a lizard’s tail; he’ll just grow another one,” Greene said. “I don’t think we should spend a whole lot of money trying to come up with secure digital music. It’ll just get hacked. What we’ve got to do is give consumers more value for their money and give people six or seven good cuts on a CD instead of loading it up with filler material.”

Sometimes Free Music Leads to a Big Payoff

What the music moguls seem to overlook is that free music, somewhere down the line, can translate into a big payoff. Such was the logic when Tom Petty gave out his single “Free Girl Now” on last year. His record label, Warner Bros., pulled the plug after a few days. But some 150,000 people downloaded the song--meaning that Petty can target merchandising efforts directly to those listeners. It’s also likely that he picked up thousands of new (and record-buying) fans in the process.

For a more old-fashioned example, consider the Grateful Dead, a band that not only allowed but encouraged fans to make unauthorized “bootleg” recordings of all its live concerts. Years of tape swapping spread the band’s renown and won it one of the most loyal followings in rock history.


A key element in those cases is that the artists themselves authorized the giveaways. Anti-Napster acts such as Metallica argue that it amounts to piracy when others do the giving away on a grand scale, without permission. Still, it’s equally possible that before suing Napster, Metallica benefited from free exposure on the exchange.

“I have bought some artists’ CDs that I had never heard of, all because of the free service on Napster,” said Shannon Biehl, 22, a college student from Rockingham, N.C. “You only have to download what you want, and if something is trashy, you can delete it.”

Like many Napster fans, Biehl fears that if another free site gets a lot of publicity and traffic, “the greedy, money-grubbing record companies will go after them.” Yet a big reason free music will continue on the Internet is that unlike Napster, exchanges such as Freenet and Gnutella operate without central server computers. That means they cannot be intercepted and silenced by authorities.

However, such freedom (or, at least, free music) comes with other costs: time and frustration. Near gridlock conditions often await visitors to Gnutella, and learning the ropes of the service is much harder than on Napster.

“The saving grace is that those systems are very cumbersome and don’t work very well,” said entertainment attorney Owen Sloane, who has represented artists including Elton John and Fleetwood Mac. “But that’s not for long. Technology moves so quickly, and it’s so easy to get a college or high school kid who develops something, and it spreads like wildfire.”

What’s more, new Internet pirates can easily evade the grasp of authorities by setting up operations outside the U.S. Still, the question remains what motivation there might be in it, other than the love of music itself. Despite all the publicity and a user base of some 38 million, Napster had yet to make any money before it announced a partnership with German media giant Bertelsmann AG in October.


Whether that alliance takes effect depends on the federal court decision, which could be announced any day now. Win or lose, it’s the end of free music on Napster--though definitely not the end of free music on the Web.

As loyal as he is to Napster, Coleman said he would leave in search of free songs elsewhere “in a heartbeat.” Millions of others will probably join him, and where there is demand, Coleman believes, suppliers will soon follow, whether or not there’s money to be made.

“The reason that the record companies went after Napster and no one else is because Napster does it the best,” Coleman said. “I would have done exactly the same--go after the main one, not the small fry. However, they should know that someone else will fill the void.”