Napster's zero hour approaching on filters

By the end of Monday, the music-swapping company must prove to the court, the record labels and the world that it is officially blocking songs from being traded with the help of its service.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
By the end of Monday, music-swapping company Napster must prove to the court, the record labels and the world that it is officially blocking songs from being traded with the help of its service.

But as cataclysmic deadlines go, it will likely be an unimpressive one. Record companies have provided information on only a limited number of songs that qualify under the court's new rules. At the same time, a host of filter-evading tactics has emerged that has kept many of those songs that are being screened available in some fashion.

The two sides are meeting in front of a court-appointed mediator Friday in an attempt to find some common ground on which they can reach settlement--or at least go forward to trial on the same page. Late on Friday, the record industry sent a list of 135,000 individual songs to Napster to block, ratcheting up the systems' filters several more notches. But the efforts to enforce the injunction will likely continue to be controversial, analysts say.

"I think (the existing filter) is the worst of both worlds," Jupiter Research analyst Aram Sinnreich said. "It's just annoying enough to drive some consumers away, but not effective enough to satisfy rights holders."

Looking for common ground
At this point in the saga, Napster is doing its best to extend a large enough olive branch to the record companies so that it can stay alive at least through July, when a secure subscription service is scheduled to launch in conjunction with Bertelsmann and a few independent labels.

Both sides declined comment as to what they would be discussing in the mediation talks Friday. Napster had previously offered the industry a guaranteed $1 billion over the next five years in return for licenses to music for the subscription service and a temporary legal "cease fire." None of the major labels bit into the offer, with some executives calling it more of a publicity stunt than a genuine proposal.

Some of those same executives recently have indicated that they would be willing to license their music to a secure, law-abiding Napster, however. AOL Time Warner Chief Executive Gerald Levin told the BBC earlier in the week that his company would sign up with Napster if there was a copyright-protected system. Vivendi Universal CEO Jean-Marie Messier told the Financial Times much the same thing earlier in the week.

Few analysts take these as serious signs of a warming relationship, however.

"In my opinion that's just spin," Sinnreich said. "There are plenty of companies offering secured download services today. I'll believe it when I see (the record companies) license their whole catalog to one of these companies."

Arms race
The steps toward any potential rapprochement--critical moves if Napster is to survive the next few months--depend largely on how well the music-swapping company is able to block songs from appearing through its service in the next few weeks.

Beginning last Sunday night, the company added a screen that looks for specific file names and artist-song name combinations, blocking them from being traded if they are on lists of songs identified as copyrighted by artists or record companies.

Court gives Napster 
breathing room The terms of the official injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel last Monday night fall close to the workings of this filter.

Under that injunction, the record companies must submit the names of songs and artists to be blocked, as well as the name of at least one specific file representing each song, to prove that actual copyright infringement had been happening.

In return, Napster must block those specific songs within three days of receiving notice. But it is also on call to seek out "reasonable" file name variations or misspellings and block those, too, drawing the screen's mesh as tight as possible.

But already an arms race has developed as Napster lovers do their best to slip through the screens.

Rival file-swapping company Aimster released a small software program early in the week that turns file and artist names into a form similar to Pig Latin, temporarily evading the filters. Another Canadian site, NapCameBack launched Friday with a similar tack.

By Friday, it appeared that Napster was catching up to this particular strategy, however. Several of the most popular Metallica songs, including "Enter Sandman" were not available in their Pig Latin-esque equivalents. Other misspellings were still returned in search results, however.

Other more powerful screen evading technologies are being developed, however. One of the most threatening versions saw programmers creating a "proxy" screen that would automatically scramble filenames as they were posted to the Napster service. It would then scramble search requests the same way so that the randomly scrambled file names could be found.

Thus, someone using this type of program might be hosting Metallica's "Enter Sandman," but it would appear on the service as "X4sim Omosi98." Someone using the same program would be able to find the song by searching for "Enter Sandman," however. The files and the searches would appear to be random strings of letters and numbers to Napster's search engine and database, making it difficult to determine whether they are copyrighted songs.

Aimster plans to release this type of technology next week, under a project code-named "Scorpion." Another group of independent programmers has already posted an early version of the technology, dubbed "Catnap."

These programs call into question the effectiveness of filtering by text, as Napster currently does. Other ways to identify files exist but would be far more difficult to integrate into Napster's search engine, according to Jordan Ritter, a former Napster senior server architect, now a technology vice president at Round1.

"The core of the filtering technology is based on the same technology as (Napster's) search engine," Ritter said. "That technology is only capable of text."