(Way) Beyond Napster

No one should be surprised at the limited success of the recording industry's efforts to squelch online music-swapping. Yes, the industry won its case against Napster, the service that popularized exchanging songs at no cost. In February, a court ordered Napster to stop the free trading of copyrighted songs.

But the months since have seen the rapid growth of other services, picking up where Napster - temporarily shut down to build in better copyright-screening abilities - left off. And these newcomers are going to be harder for the industry to fight than Napster was.

For one thing, their software uses swappers' own computers rather than central company-owned machines to search the Web for song titles. Example: MusicCity.com is being downloaded at a rate of more than 1 million copies a week.

But before music fans get too accustomed to getting something for nothing, they should consider their loyalty to the artists who create the songs. It's somewhat heartening to read that, at least among some online music swappers, there's a code of honor that rules out selling downloaded music "burned" onto blank CDs by computer owners. Still, the number of such CD "burners" in use - nearly 50 million by one estimate - has to give pause to people in the music business.

Sales of recorded music have been falling. The economic downturn accounts for some of that. But swapped and pirated music has had its impact, too. The music industry's challenge (and Hollywood's, as the number of pirated movies downloaded from the Web soars) remains how to successfully tap into the greatly expanded audience the Web makes possible.

Pay services modeled on Napster are in the works. Some firms hope to find subscribers among the millions of cellphone and hand-held computer users, along with PC owners.

When a piece of music hits the popularity jackpot on the Web, musicians and businesspeople no doubt will find new ways to make it pay.

But the need to merge talent, marketing, and popular tastes into a workable system that allows individual artists to fully profit from their creative efforts in the digital age remains.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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