That vision is beginning to take shape, as international versions of Napster spring up around the world. But they're already meeting their own legal resistance--led in many areas by the International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI), an organization that is slowly gaining new prominence in the industry's global fight to quash Net piracy.
IFPI is an umbrella group that oversees record companies' interests around the world, an international counterpart to the Recording Industry Association of America. Until recently, U.S. residents had little or no reason even to have heard of the group, as most of its actions take place outside U.S. borders.
But as the copyright industry's fight against Internet piracy turns increasingly global, this international organization's role is spreading to touch even U.S. consumers. It is responsible for popularizing tools that track down pirated music online. It also is advising record companies around the world on copy-protecting CDs and even has its own patents on a technique for doing so.
Although the IFPI hasn't filed lawsuits against file-swapping companies, it has tools that track down file swappers and Web pirates through their Internet service providers, an increasingly common technique that is sending some shivers of concern through the ISP community. The group says it hasn't needed to learn the courtroom language that has punctuated the American market, but it sees the potential for such action.
"Legal action is a possibility, but one of last resort," said Fiona Harley, an IFPI spokeswoman. "We would rather create a situation where people have a legitimate alternative."
Spinning new technologies
Worldwide, the recording industry's trade groups have never had higher profiles than they do today. Two years ago, the RIAA would have drawn little more than blank stares from anyone outside the music industry; today it is a common four-letter word in many Web music circles.
The IFPI is slowly gaining the same kind of stature. But take the lawsuits away, and it may have even more influence than the RIAA.
Much of the IFPI's work remains offline, tracking down the pirate CD manufacturers that are still the biggest focus of the music industry overseas. One of the group's oldest technological works is a massive database that keeps track of pirate distribution patterns, allowing it to track the spread of CDs from a Hong Kong plant to the market in Greece, for example.
But the IFPI maintains its own technology division and even has a separate but wholly owned company that serves as a repository for patents that come out of the technology group.
On the anti-piracy side, the group's work for the past year has been focused largely on developing tools for tracking works online and training smaller industry groups to use those tools.
Matt Warne was until recently a member of the IFPI's anti-piracy team in the United Kingdom. He says he spent considerable time helping guide the creation of an industrial-strength Web crawler internally called the Internet Antipiracy System, which automated the process of finding files and notifying Web hosts or ISPs. Ultimately developed by Cambridge Consultants, a division of the Arthur D. Little consulting company, the system was a powerful search tool able to come up with a million or more files a day, Warne says.
From that point, the group spent considerable time teaching national groups how to use the tools, which have not been made public, Warne said.
"We provided the (Web) crawler, and they would deal with piracy in their country," he said. "Some were very small offices, and we would have to train them up on how to deal with offenders."
But even as that project was under way, peer-to-peer file-swapping services exploded onto the scene, overseas as well as in the United States. According to Jupiter Media Metrix, Napster use was higher in some European countries than in the United States, with 24 percent of Net households using Napster in Spain, compared with 18 percent in America. Germany, Italy and Norway all saw about 15 percent to 16 percent Napster penetration.
To address this, the IFPI developed a tool called Songbird, created by Utah programmer Travis Hill and his Media Enforcer company. Hill says the group contacted him not long after he released his original software anonymously online and asked him to create a version that would be distributed to the public.
Songbird is less relevant now, since it only searches Napster for files that infringe copyrights. But Hill said other projects are on their way.
"We've been working with them continuously on a bunch of things," all related to anti-piracy tools, he said.
The group also serves as a kind of research organization for future anti-piracy technologies. It has produced a survey for record companies going over the pros and cons of various ways to protect CDs from copying, and it is doing the same thing with audio "fingerprinting" technology, which identifies a song by its audio characteristics.
"When we are in a competitive situation...we don't want to recommend a single technology," said IFPI Chief Technical Officer Paul Jessop. "We typically study the whole market and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of what is available. Individual labels will then make their own decisions and may take our comments into account."
The IFPI has also served as one of the biggest voices in copyright policy battles that are still going on across Europe. European nations are in the process of implementing new copyright rules that will, in part, make it easier for record companies to prosecute Net pirates. The final shape of those regulations is still undetermined, however.
European courts have also gone further than U.S. jurists in blocking the spread of copyrighted material online. Courts in Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and France have found that links pointing to a copyrighted work are "unauthorized communications" of such a work.
The IFPI and its member organizations in individual countries will take advantage of those trends as Internet use overseas rises--and as file-trading hubs move increasingly out of the United States. Individual downloaders aren't a focus, but people who offer massive numbers of files to the world could be, the group says.
"It is not our policy to target or prosecute consumers, but to stay focused on the commercial, intentional large-volume provider of pirate music," Harley said. "We can't expect to eradicate Internet piracy altogether; we aim to protect the emerging legitimate online business environment, making it as inconvenient as possible for infringers."