LOS ANGELES — His dorm room is festooned with posters of music icons past and present - Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Britney Spears. Shirtless and barefoot, Adam Finck, a freshman at the University of California (UCLA) here, hovers over his flickering computer as he downloads digital music files for free over the Internet.
"Why would I buy a CD when I can get anything I want in the history of music delivered instantly to my room for free?" he asks.
It's a question the music industry hoped would die, or at least shrivel, with the death of Napster - the popular, free online music service shut down by courts in June. But as dozens of Internet libertines promised, a dorm hamper's worth of alternatives has filled the Napster vacuum, forcing the music industry to find ways both in and out of the courts to protect copyrights.
By nearly all accounts, just as much or more free music is available now - and just as easily - through programs known as "peer-to-peer" file-swapping, which eliminate the centralized server that got Napster in hot water.
"Napster let the genie out of the bottle, and it doesn't appear it will ever get put back in again," says Michael Epstein, a specialist on Internet law at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles. "Despite efforts by Congress and the music industry to get tough with copyright laws in the digital era, they have not been able to prevent the unlimited free exchange of music over the Internet. Nor does it seem they will."
Among the dozen or so well-known alternatives to Napster are services called LimeWire, MusicCity.com Morpheus, Gnutella, Kazaa, and BearShare. Because most require no central producer to maintain file lists, they have so far escaped being shut down as Napster was. "It's like giving consumers a fishing rod instead of the fish," says Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
Moreover, such services allow users to exchange more than just music files - including movies, pictures, and written text. "Since there are perfectly legal maneuvers you can make with these systems, it's harder to prove they are contributing to the kind of copyright infringement that killed Napster," says Mr. Zittrain.
But the words "legal" and "illegal" are not on the minds of students on the fourth floor of Riebart Hall here. "I use several of these all the time and find I can get more titles, in more versions with better delivery than Napster," says Pete Anderson, a UCLA junior who has downloaded about 2,000 songs in recent years.
He's not alone. Yahoo Internet Life, an online magazine that covers the Internet, recently counted a typical Napster daily index of music files up for sharing at 233 gigabytes. By comparison, one of the alternative services, Morpheus, listed 107 terabytes, roughly 500 times the size of the Napster network.
While the rise of swapping networks has further fueled ongoing debates about intellectual property rights and copyright infringement, the Recording Industry of America (RIAA), which represents the major record labels and thousands of composers and songwriters, is making a many-fronted counterattack.
First, it is trying to educate the public about what it feels are inappropriate uses of such technology that amount to stealing from artists and producing companies. Second, it is taking some of the entities to court for infringement of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) written by Congress in 1998. Third, it is negotiating with existing companies and startups to change or modify their ways, offering alternatives that include remuneration to artists.
"We realize that fans really, really, really want music on line, when they want it, how they want it, where they want it," says Amy Weiss, RIAA spokeswoman. "But we also really, really, really want to pay artists and copyright holders for their work."
The compromises that the RIAA and some record companies and individuals are pushing are various subscription and pay schemes. Under some arrangements, consumers can purchase single songs, while in others they have access to music catalogs for given periods of time, say $17.95 a month.
All top five record companies are currently establishing licensing/purchase options, according to the RIAA, two with Pressplay.com and three with MusicNet.com. But most analysts say such ideas are not likely to work in the long term."We have an entire generation of kids who have grown up who more or less feel that music is free, so we already have generational hurdle to clear," says Rob Atkinson, who runs the New Economy and Technology Project at the Washington-based Progressive Policy Institute. "By the time they get to college, kids are extremely savvy at knowing their way around the web. Those two things add up to the strong possibility that college kids won't be buying conventional CDs anymore."
The attitudes of students here strongly reflect such a prediction. "Kids are way smarter than the record executives who are coming up with these ideas," says Mr. Anderson. "We will always figure out a way to get around whatever they come up with."
The RIAA is currently suing MusicCity.com and Aimster. But the organization is also battling these teen attitudes by lobbying many of the new services to get them to voluntarily change their ways. One success story is Listen.com, which was a free-swap site until RIAA recently got it to offer music by subscription.
A less known tactic of the RIAA is to track music downloads by scanning the Web. Instead of taking on individuals - many of them university students - themselves, they are pressuring the university networks to do so. Typically, the student is contacted, and the record company is informed that the swap has been undone or reversed.
"Most of the public doesn't know this yet, but it happens hundreds of times a day all across the US," says Tracy Mitrano, policy adviser for the Cornell University Office of Information Technology. She says the record companies are using this tactic because colleges and universities are expressly liable under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
But students like Finck and Anderson are unfazed - so far. "That sobers me a little," says Roger Hanafin, Anderson's roommate. "But if they catch 100 a day compared to how many are downloading, how bad can that be? They're not going to put me in jail."