Napster’s dead, but the file-sharing war continues

Call it the file-sharing war part two: the post-Napster battle. That’s what the major record companies, movie studios and music publishers are now engaged in, with a handful of file-sharing networks that sprang up following the death of Napster. The popular service, which at one time had 30 million users, was effectively killed by a series of multibillion-dollar lawsuits, which eventually resulted in a court order that Napster remove all copyrighted music from its network of servers. Getting rid of the new batch of file-sharing services may not be quite that simple, however.

The new services are known by several different names, including MorpheusKazaa and Grokster. They are all based on software from an Amsterdam-based company called FastTrack, which allows users to set up a virtual public network among themselves through which they can trade any type of digital content — music, videos, full-length movies, software, and so on. One key difference is that Kazaa or Morpheus users don’t share files by accessing a central group of servers, as Napster users did. That’s part of what made the company vulnerable, because it was held liable for the file-swapping.

Kazaa and Morpheus — and other file-sharing services such as Limewire and BearShare, which are based on the open-source software known as Gnutella — are “distributed” networks, meaning users download or upload files directly from another user’s computer. In the case of Gnutella, the software that runs the networks is freely available, which makes it difficult to find a company to pursue in court. FastTrack (which runs Kazaa) charges MusicCity (which runs Morpheus) a licensing fee for its software, but even if it was shut down, the software is not that hard to reproduce.

With these kinds of distributed networks, copyright holders are effectively forced to go after individual file-sharers — and in October alone, estimates are that well over half a million users swapped more than 2 billion digital files. File swappers, and some legal experts, argue that under copyright law consumers who pay for music have the right to make copies for other uses, such as playing them from their computer, in a car stereo and so on. Shutting down the file-swapping networks would prevent them from doing so — or they could switch to other methods, including using the latest version of Microsoft’s Instant Messenger or the file-sharing tools included in older chat-oriented software such as Internet Relay Chat.

Nevertheless, last month the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a suit against MusicCity and FastTrack, and was joined in the action by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which is concerned that high-speed Internet access and new compression schemes make it even easier to swap entire full-length Hollywood movies as well as music. Earlier this week, the National Music Publishers Association, which represents about 800 music-publishing companies and licenses music through its Harry Fox subsidiary, also launched a suit. The plaintiffs are legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote Jailhouse Rock.

While they have been pursuing Napster and its offspring in court, the major record labels have promised that two new on-line music services will take the place of file swapping. MusicNet is a consortium of EMI Music, Warner Music Group and BMG Music that plans to use RealNetworks technology, while Pressplay is a partnership between Sony Music and Vivendi, and has a technology deal with Yahoo. To complicate things, Napster is supposed to be part of MusicNet, while EMI Music has licensed its artist catalogue both to Pressplay and to MusicNet. Both services are expected to launch next year, although their launch dates have already been delayed several times.

Both Pressplay and MusicNet will likely involve restrictions that file-sharers are not likely to take kindly to, however. They are expected to be “tiered,” which means one monthly fee — $9.95, for example — will only allow you to access certain songs, or will only allow you to stream the music rather than downloading it onto your hard drive. MusicNet also has plans to provide music files which expire at the end of the month. Even users who pay the full price may be restricted to copying the file to one device only, while users who are looking for music from both EMI and Sony or Warner and Vivendi, meanwhile, will have to pay two monthly fees.

With those kinds of restrictions, it won’t be a surprise if file-swappers continue to find alternatives such as Morpheus and Kazaa, whatever the outcome of the case happens to be.