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CNET's Eliot Van Buskirk sees danger to the Internet in the record industry's attempt to outlaw peer-to-peer file sharing.

Yes, this column tells you how to get 16 free MP3s. But before we get to them, I'm hoping you'll read about what the availability of these tracks means to you, your music and the Internet in general, because this is all very important stuff.

Last year, a federal court ruled that peer-to-peer file-sharing applications are legal, because they can be used in substantial, noninfringing ways. This year, an appeals court upheld that ruling.

The reasoning behind these decisions goes all the way back to 1984, when Universal sued Sony for selling the first Betamax machines. Universal said that because VCRs could be used to pirate movies, they should be strictly verboten. Sony replied that because VCRs have legitimate uses too, (storing video for later viewing, making a backup copy of a purchased movie and so forth), they're perfectly OK. The Supreme Court sided with Sony (and consumers), and while Betamax later lost out to the VHS format, consumers' ability to copy media for personal use was preserved.

Fortunately for all of us, there are substantial, noninfringing uses for P2P file-sharing networks.

When an appeals court upholds a decision like the file-sharing one, that's generally it--pack up your briefcases and go home. Nonetheless, the record labels are trying to take their case to the Supreme Court, with the hope that those judges will see things differently and decide that P2P companies are in fact legally responsible for the actions of their users. The way things stand now, the law hates the player but not the game. If the labels get their way, the law will hate the player and the game, and that just isn't right, since some people are playing by the rules.

This isn't just about music. If the Supreme Court overturns the lower courts' decisions, the Internet could become unrecognizable. Why? Because most of the Internet will be illegal if P2P is outlawed.

While P2P software differs from other technologies in its architecture, all it really does is connect two IP addresses for the transfer of data. If the Recording Industry Association of America has its way, any company that facilitates a data connection between two users will be held accountable for the actions of those users. Even if your school's or company's network has several noninfringing uses (say, cancer research), the discovery that some bad apples are using it to trade copyrighted files would result in massive fines (up to $10,000 per song).

Before long, the incentive for organizations to offer open Internet connections would disappear. In other words, we'd all be surfing a walled-in version of the Internet subject to censorship and other types of external control (sort of like the early AOL).

You should control your machine
If anything else in the home was as maddening to use as a computer, most people would refuse to use it. Think about it: If your dishwasher crashed, or if your TV's video driver went on the fritz, you'd lose your patience pretty quickly. The reason we put up with computers, even though they can be so frustrating to use, is that we have complete control over our machines. We use computers because they can do just about whatever we want them to.

If the labels succeed in outlawing P2P, what's next? E-mail? FTP? HTTP? Instant messaging? All of these technologies can be used to trade illegal files. Banning P2P would be the start of one of those notorious slippery slopes. Eventually, computers would come to resemble televisions and other devices with limited capabilities. We will have lost control of our machines. In fact, it's already starting; an ISP called Shaw has already started deleting some packets sent by its users. It uses a secret set of rules to decide which packets to kill.

The way things stand now, the law hates the player but not the game. If the labels get their way, the law will hate the player and the game.

I understand the labels' wish to stomp out P2P technology, but if it means we have to unplug the Internet and cede control of our computers, outlawing P2P probably isn't the way to go.

Fortunately for all of us, there are substantial, noninfringing uses for P2P file-sharing networks. For instance, no one owns old material that has been reverted to the public domain, so you can trade that all day long. In addition, there are thousands of songs on P2P networks that were made by bands who only want people to hear them--for free, for money, for whatever.

Here's the nut: Someone needed to create new levels of copyright to address the gap between "this is copyrighted and you can't use it for anything," and "take my rights, please." Luckily, the Creative Commons, a Stanford, Calif.-based nonprofit group, came up with new licenses that offer copyright holders varying levels of control. That is, the group offers alternative copyright designations that let musicians and other artists allow sharing while keeping some rights to royalties. For instance, some Creative Commons-licensed songs are OK to sample for noncommercial use, and others can be traded with impunity on P2P networks.

The goods
The songs below represent (quite perfectly, I might add) the substantial noninfringing uses that P2P's survival--and perhaps that of technology in general--depend upon. In addition to the Creative Commons, thanks go to Wired Magazine, which put together the artist deals and included the songs on a free CD bundled with its current issue.

Download all of them, for free, from

1. Beastie Boys--Now Get Busy

2. David Byrne--My Fair Lady

3. Zap Mama--Wadidyusay

4. My Morning Jacket--One Big Holiday

5. Spoon--Revenge!

6. Gilberto Gil--Oslodun

7. Dan the Automator--Relaxation Spa Treatment

8. Thievery Corporation--DC 3000

9. Le Tigre--Fake French

10. Paul Westerberg--Looking Up in Heaven

11. Chuck D with Fine Arts Militia - No Meaning No

12. The Rapture--Sister Saviour (Blackstrobe Remix)

13. Cornelius--Wataridori 2

14. Danger Mouse and Jemini--What You Sittin' On? (starring Cee Lo and Tha Alkaholiks)

15. DJ Dolores--Oslodun 2004 (includes Creative Commons-licensed sample of "Oslodun" by Gilberto Gil)

16. Matmos--Action at a Distance