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Dead grateful for MP3--with limits

The Grateful Dead wants to keep the "golden road to unlimited devotion" open to its fans online, but the band has found it has to update its mantra a bit in the digital age.

The Grateful Dead wants to keep the "golden road to unlimited devotion" open to its fans online, but the band has found it has to update its mantra a bit in the digital age.

As any fan worth his or her salt knows, the Grateful Dead for years has encouraged its rabid followers to trade tapes of live performances with one another--even setting aside an area at live shows where fans can record.

The advent of the Internet MP3: Sound and fury has complicated matters a great deal, however, with online music distribution and auction sites giving shared music collections a whole new meaning. When the Grateful Dead was faced with a site collecting ad revenue on pages where it offered MP3 files of the band's songs, it found it had to update its decades-old policy on music sharing.

In keeping with its policy encouraging the sharing of recordings of its live performances, the Grateful Dead will allow free downloads in the MP3 format, according to Eric Doney, an attorney with Donahue, Gallagher, Woods & Wood, who handles intellectual property issues for the band. But also in keeping with its policy, the downloads must be purely noncommercial.

"The rules essentially have not changed," Doney said today. A fan "can't make money directly or indirectly" from sharing the band's live music.

Doney said the surviving members of the band, "like most people in the recording industry, were taking a wait-and-see approach" to MP3 initially. But when it was discovered that banner ads were being served on the Astrojams music site over MP3 downloads of the band's music, Doney said the band decided it had to take a stand.

MP3 is an audio compression format that allows users to download music tracks and save them onto a PC hard drive or a portable MP3 player. It enjoys tremendous popularity on the Net because it is easy to use and offers good sound quality. But many in the mainstream record industry hate MP3 because it allows for the easy, global distribution of unauthorized copies of copyright-protected music.

"MP3 is a quantum leap away from hand-to-hand tape trading," Doney said. Along with allowing for global distribution, he pointed out that the format allows the music to be passed to any number of fans with "no degradation in quality," unlike tapes. In addition, he said MP3s attract a host of fans that didn't participate in tape trading.

A message on the Astrojams site reads: "The Grateful Dead have released an official statement regarding MP3 distribution at They will continue to allow the trading of Dead shows as long as 'No commercial gain may be sought by Web sites offering digital files of our music, whether through advertising, exploiting databases compiled from their traffic, or any other means.' Additionally, site operators must post the statement on their file servers.

"Unfortunately, it looks like Astrojams will no longer be able to distribute shows due to our use of banners, which partially offset the costs associated with the ftp server," the message continues. "It is certainly fantastic to know that [the Grateful Dead] will still allow people to trade shows and keep this incredible music flowing for a long time."

In addition to the MP3 dilemma, Doney said auction sites have presented a challenge for the band. He said his staff checks nine auction sites--including eBay, Classifieds 2000, and Yahoo Auction--twice daily, looking for fans selling tapes.

Fans "can't sell tapes on auction sites--not even for the cost of the tape," Doney said, adding that for the most part, the fans are cooperative. "Most of them don't realize they're doing something wrong" and stop when they are notified. He said the auction sites also have been cooperative.

Doney noted that the band's position on music recorded in the studio has not changed. "Studio albums will not be permitted to be distributed in MP3, period," he said. The band "will continue to aggressively prosecute for any piracy of their music."