MP3Cafe had been a place where hundreds of people at a time would gather to download music, chat about bands, and trade information about other file-swapping nodes on the Net. While the activity was minor compared to the activity on Napster and similar services, it was a tight and active community.
When the community disappeared early this week, rumors immediately flew that it had been shut down under threat of lawsuit by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The theory was bolstered by stories from anonymous individuals claiming to have participated in MP3Cafe's operation, who said the channel owner had received threats of lawsuits and decided to close its doors to the public.
The recording industry--which typically isn't shy about its actions against alleged music "pirates"--denies any involvement.
"It's not the case," said Frank Creighton, the RIAA's senior vice president for combating piracy. But he added: "It could be someone on our side. There are people who take it on themselves to identify themselves as RIAA."
The incident highlights a growing wariness about the threat of legal action inside the MP3-swapping underground--fears that are fed by growing publicity over the record industry's lawsuit against Napster and efforts by individual bands to track down specific people involved in music trading.
It also sheds light on a curious phenomenon apparently rising inside Napster circles and in the lower-profile underground: Individuals are increasingly siding with the RIAA by engaging in guerrilla tactics such as posting false information on Napster or otherwise trying to shut down music-trading venues.
In the MP3Cafe case, it appears that an unidentified individual may have contacted its operators and pretended to be the RIAA. This has happened before, industry and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) sources say, as one part of the tactics of private anti-music-swapping forces.
Operators from the MP3Cafe could not be reached for comment.
Older than Napster
Unauthorized online music-swapping has been going since long before the appearance of Napster, Gnutella or Scour. IRC channels are some of the oldest venues, along with private and often secret FTP (file transfer protocol) servers or even just short-lived Web sites.
The RIAA, which issues thousands of cease-and-desist letters to online music traders every year, says that about 80 percent of these are targeted at individuals running FTP sites, with another 10 percent focused on IRC-related activities. No enforcement efforts have yet been leveled at individual Napster members.
IRC is a sprawling network of chat rooms that has long been a haven for discussions on every imaginable topic, usually populated by relatively sophisticated computer users. Existing alongside trading rooms for software and MP3 files, there are channels dedicated to hashing out tricky programming problems or discussing open-source software philosophy.
Big MP3 channels such as MP3Cafe can be populated by hundreds of people at a time as well as by "bots"--automated computer programs that respond to particular commands by initiating downloads of songs. People can ask each other for specific songs, ask for pointers to private FTP sites, or download whatever is available from the local bots.
IRC users say they come to these channels for a few reasons, not least of which is to avoid the glare of publicity involved with Napster use. Many are intensely private, and all IRC users who were willing to be interviewed requested some level of anonymity.
"I would rather stay away from Napster with all the publicity right now," said "Joe," an IRC user from Kansas City. "Who knows what's being logged and what could be searched and seized."
Another person agreed, noting that generic individual user IDs have already been included in Metallica's suit against Napster, and that actual names could be added at any time.
"Since Metallica filed their suit against Napster, I would rather go to a more low-profile location to download music," wrote "Tom," who said he lives in the Midwest.
Facing the backlash
The haze of rumor that characterizes most underground communities clouds the exact details of MP3Cafe's demise. But it is clear that individuals have been taking action against MP3 traders on their own, in other cases and probably in this one.
One prominent example of this is Travis Hill, a programmer and musician who created the Media Enforcer software, which monitors programs such as Napster or Gnutella and logs the Net addresses of individuals trading files. An upcoming product from Media Enforcer also will track IRC activity.
"I started having concerns about where copyright protection online would be headed and needed that protection to ensure royalties for my own work in the future," Hill explained.
The effect of these efforts is still hard to calculate, although the MP3Cafe incident appears to show that some are having an influence.
But in the background is the well-funded effort of the RIAA, which has stepped up its own enforcement activities even on these underground networks.
The RIAA's Creighton said he has staff that covertly monitors and tracks activity on IRC and other networks. This is the best counter against trading here, he says.
While the industry does not try to shut down channels, it does subpoena Internet service providers to discover who runs the bots or FTP sites that are hosting illegally downloaded songs. These actions lead to thousands of legal demands from industry lawyers to site operators every year.
Creighton says these cease-and-desist letters are important. But knowledge of the RIAA's activity is the best tool, he adds.
"Our biggest weapon is to publicize the fact that we are monitoring and doing covert action on these systems," he said.
Perhaps that's all that was necessary to take down MP3Cafe.