Napster hack leads to free downloads

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

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
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.


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

high-tech version of recording a song off the radio. Instead of removing the copy-protection software, a computer program plays the song as it is supposed to, and then records the song as the unprotected audio is sent to the sound card and speakers.

This technique is typically more cumbersome than a DRM-remover, requiring each song to be played fully, and can result in substantially diminished sound quality. In the case of the Winamp plug-in that is being applied to Napster's downloadable songs, the tool creates WAV files that are more than 10 times larger than their original Windows Media formats.

Nonetheless, technology companies have taken some steps to block these tools in the past. RealNetworks successfully sued a company called Streambox that created software for recording online streaming media in the company's video format.

Microsoft has created software to help block this kind of ripping, but it has rarely been used by content providers. Dubbed "Secure Audio Path," it adds noise to an audio file as it is sent to the sound card. Compatible cards can remove the noise before it reaches the speakers. Any attempt to tap the audio stream before it reaches the sound card would result in a near-unlistenable copy.

Napster and other content companies have largely elected not to turn this capability on for their services, however--in part because it would limit their software to use on computers running the Windows XP and Windows ME operating systems.

"In general people aren't using this," said David Caulton, a group product manager for Microsoft's Windows digital media division. "I think when they look at the user experience that (stream ripping) tools offer, they're not very concerned about it."

Caulton said that Microsoft is also investigating the Winamp tool to see whether any of the company's licensing terms, which allow the software to play Windows Media files in the first place, have been broken.

Napster has made headlines in recent weeks for kicking off its "Napster To Go" program, which allows people to move songs downloaded through its unlimited subscription service to portable players for the first time.