Napster hack leads to free downloads

Subscription music services battle ability to turn copy-protected downloads into unprotected files.

It's like the old Napster all over again: all the music you want for free, as long as you're willing to get a little geeky.

Blogs were buzzing Tuesday about the resurgence of an old technique for recording music on a computer, reapplied to Napster's all-you-can-eat subscription music plan. Using software freely available from America Online's Winamp division, it's possible to turn Napster's copy-protected downloads into unprotected files that can be burned by the hundreds or even thousands freely to CDs.

This type of antipiracy evasion has repeatedly dogged digital media services from RealNetworks to Apple Computer over the years. Applied to subscription services offering unlimited access to downloads of more than 1 million songs, the idea may have new resonance, however.

News.context

What's new:
Using software freely available from AOL's Winamp division, it's possible to turn Napster's copy-protected downloads into unprotected files that can be burned by the thousands freely to CDs.

Bottom line:
Content providers say "stream ripping" isn't dangerous to their subscription models, even though it can result in the creation of unprotected, fairly high-quality song files.

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For now, Napster and other content providers are saying the "hack" isn't dangerous to their subscription model, even though it can result in the creation of unprotected, fairly high-quality music files.

"It's not a new thing," said Napster spokeswoman Dana Harris. "We do all we can to make our system as secure as possible for people who want to pay for music." Record label executives nevertheless said privately that they were worried at the attention the technique was getting.

The news is the latest wrinkle in a long-running technological arms race between hackers and media companies that has helped keep digital media, from DVDs to downloadable songs, from settling into stable markets.

For the most part, digital rights management (DRM) advocates say their anticopying wares are aimed at stopping "casual" pirates. They concede that determined programmers will almost certainly be able to find ways to copy music despite protections.

In a handful of instances, hackers have actually managed to completely break, or strip out, the digital rights protection tools applied to media files. Because this kind of technique preserves the original quality of the digital file, it is potentially the most dangerous to content companies.

The tools that allow DVDs to be copied have been the most widely used version of this technique, with commercial products even showing up temporarily on mainstream store shelves. An early version of Microsoft's Windows Media was broken in 2001, but the company was able to fix the problem with updates to its media player.

More recently, Apple has repeatedly changed its iTunes software to block hackers who have figured out ways to remove the copy-protection software from songs purchased at its online store.

The "stream ripping" problem is a different one, essentially a

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