Napster fans squeeze through loopholes

For faithful Napster members wondering how they'll get free music from now on, solutions are quickly making the rounds.

4 min read
For faithful Napster members wondering how they'll get free music from now on, solutions are quickly making the rounds.

A federal judge ordered Napster late Monday to begin blocking infringing songs from its service within five days, adding legal bite to a voluntary plan the company implemented last weekend. But some of its more than 64 million members have already begun trading secrets on how to circumvent current restrictions, which aim to filter out specific names of infringing files.

"I think a core group of fairly technical users can band together and continue to trade files if some sort of key is established," said Brad Hill, a Napster member and the author of a daily e-mail tip sheet about online music. "I think, however, that any kind of speed bump will turn off the broad population of mainstream users."

Although Napster has vowed to cooperate even more closely with the record labels in rooting out copyrighted works, it faces a delicate balancing act as it tries to stay in business long enough to relaunch--as promised--as a fully licensed and secure network. The less successful Napster is in complying with Monday's court order, the less it runs the risk of alienating its members, whom it hopes to convert to paying subscribers by July.

So far the buzz for circumventing restrictions is focused on a Pig Latin-like solution from Aimster, a service that lets individuals trade files with other people on their instant messaging buddy lists. Dubbed the "Aimster Pig Encoder," the software changes the file names of songs inside a person's Napster directory into a spelling inspired by Pig Latin. The Radiohead song "Karma Police," for example, would be transformed into "armaK oliceP."

Aimster CEO Johnny Deep said his company is already working on a much stronger encryption software in case Napster begins policing names scrambled with just Pig Latin. The new encryption software, Deep said, would be so complex that Napster would not be able to identify song titles while monitoring its own servers.

"The file names get encoded or scrambled, but as they come back to your computer, they would get unscrambled," Deep said. "To Napster it will look like an unintelligible string of letters and binary characters."

Aimster says it would be illegal for the Recording Industry Association of America to reverse-engineer its encoding scheme and try to filter the encrypted file names since federal law bars anybody from breaking through or helping to break encryption designed to protect copyrighted works.

In this case, Aimster says, file names themselves--authored by individual people--are copyrighted works.

"We think it's legally defensible," Deep said. "If the file name is copyrighted, and it's encrypted using an algorithm, reversing it would be violating federal law."

In the injunction issued Monday, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel told Napster it must block specific song titles and artists provided by the record companies. Napster must also help police for misspellings and other misnamed files. The court did not say, however, how much time it must spend looking for these violators or what lengths it must go to, to stop violations.

Earlier Tuesday, Napster member Hill searched for the Santana song "Smooth" on the service and did not pull up any matches. He was able, however, to find the song under several alternative file names, including "sm.mp3" and "smoo.mp3."

Hill predicted Napster may become a service for people with the technical skill to track down secret languages and conduct complex searches.

"You're going to have to go into a newsgroup somewhere and find out what the renaming is," Hill said. "For Sue-bread-and-butter-Napster-user, who goes to the site once a month, this is going to be too much."

If the cat-and-mouse game becomes too complex, or Napster shuts down altogether, online music fans may not be out of luck. Several alternatives exist, including OpenNap, iMesh and Gnutella.

OpenNap is an open-source version of the Napster technology that allows individuals to set themselves up as smaller versions of the music-swapping service. Anybody with a reasonably powerful computer and fast Net connection can run the software, creating a directory through which linked computers can search each other's hard drives for music files.

OpenNap, however, also faces a threat from the recording industry. In late February, the RIAA sent letters of legal complaint to about 50 U.S. Internet service providers, asking them to block access to people running OpenNap from their networks.

Some analysts suspect that other Napster alternatives, including the decentralized Gnutella service, could also be targeted by the RIAA. Individuals who follow the peer-to-peer industry have said it is fairly easy to identify the IP addresses of people who serve files through Gnutella. If the RIAA chose to target individuals, it could potentially stifle future trading.

Still, on message boards and newsgroups Tuesday, Napster's technically inclined members seemed to have plenty of plans for how to continue finding and trading free music.

"With the other sharing software out there--Hotline, newsgroups--MP3 trading is not going to go away," said Napster member Bill Evans. "Rename the extension and send it as a JPEG."