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Napster shows its new face

Editorial 15: Napster’s sad future. Napster, one of the most popular programs to ever sweep the Internet, will be undergoing drastic changes soon to avoid being closed down by lawsuits from the recording industry. Unfortunately, based on the press release from Napster on Feb. 16, it seems their new incarnation will abandon most of the elements that made Napster popular to begin with, and replace it with an outmoded method of file-sharing, all the while calling it “innovation.”

Napster was invented in 1999 by Shawn Fanning, then an 18 year-old freshmen at Boston’s Northeastern University. Napster’s greatest appeal is the ease of use. It allows users to get virtually any Mp3 they desire for free, which is technically illegal by today’s copyright laws. Napster gets its strength by being a peer-to-peer program, in which music files are sent from computer to computer without being routed through a main server. The main Napster server houses the search engine that makes the trading possible. The new proposed Napster (let’s call it Napster II) will be keeping this basic peer-to-peer structure. You will still download the client software from www.napster.com. The program will still send your list of songs the main server index, where other users can download them. But very little else will remain.

Napster II will involve an extra step that Napster I lacked. Napster II will involve encryption. A Napster user can make their own Mp3s, but once another user tries to copy the Mp3 onto their own hard drive, the Napster software will encode it to a Napster-specific file type. This file can only be read by another paying member of Napster who has the encryption key in their system. If a user were to e-mail a copy of the song to everyone on their mailing list, they would be unable to play it. Extra fees could be offered for those who may wish to copy their Mp3s onto CDs, to pay for the extra encryption.

I like my Mp3s. I like that I can trade them any way possible; I rip my own, I get Mp3s sent to me, and I trade them on Napster I. What Napster II proposes to do is transform the open nature of Mp3s–their ability to be traded in numerous ways–and limit it in ways most users probably won’t be willing to tolerate.

But Napster has an even bigger problem to deal with. An integral part of the Napster II architecture is that it requires record companies to opt in. No Mp3 can be traded across Napster II unless the record company has given permission to Napster. Some independent record labels may give permission away for free, to drum up publicity for their product. But the other record companies will not come cheap. On Feb. 20, Napster offered record companies $1 billion over the next five years to the top five record labels. Napster offered $150 million to be paid out yearly over the next five years to be split between the top five labels, with an extra $50 allocated to independent labels.

The annual guaranteed payments of $200 million would come out of projected subscription fees. Napster II expects to offer a limited number of downloads per month that would likely cost between $2.95 and $4.95, while an unlimited number of downloads would be available for between $5.95 and $9.95. Napster spokesman Hank Berry announced the current Napster I unlimited download service would go away after an “orderly” transition. The transition to Napster II is currently projected to take place by July, which spokesmen believe will give enough time for software engineers to create the copy-protection technology.

If this is the future of Napster, I’m sorry to say this promising young company is doomed. When they convert over to an inferior program and ask us to pay for it, Napster users will abandon the software in droves. And that’s not all. Most of the record companies have rejected the billion dollar offer, even though $1 billion is worth approximately $5.4 billion in CD sales, since the labels would have no additional production or distribution costs.

Barring a massive change in copyright law or a major miracle, it seems Napster is doomed. But between now and July, I intend to pillage and stockpile all the Mp3s I can think of.

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