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Cybernaut

The piracy solution?

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Before the Napster MP3 swapping network was shut down by the U.S. government, you could always get in a debate about the ethics of downloading free music from the Internet.

Back then you could find people who could actually defend the practice, suggesting that bands benefited from the exposure and that record company execs were just bunch of fat cats anyway, middle men wedging themselves between the music and the music fans. People also defended it by saying that they only used the services to sample and discover music, and went out to buy the CDs of the bands they liked.

A lot has changed since then. Canadian chain Sam The Record Man went out of business this summer because sales were down. HMV stores are closing in some areas, and other chains are only holding on by their fingernails. Sales were down more than 20 per cent for the recording industry in 2001.

These days I can’t seem to find anyone who will justify their right to download free music off of the Internet with the same fervor as before.

Most people know its wrong, but still they say that as long as these services are available they’ll continue to log on. They also believe that there’s so much digital music floating around the Web already that it would be impossible for the government or the music industry to stop the practice of downloading free music.

They have a point. When Napster was shut down, people turned around and subscribed to other services like LimeWire (www.limewire.com), KaAaA (www.kazaa.com), and Morpheus (www.musiccity.com). When Morpheus was temporarily forced to shut down in late February, people jumped onto Gnutella ( www.gnutella.com ) without batting an eye.

Since the music industry and government can only target these services one at a time, it stands to reason that for every service that is shut down another five will rise up to take their place.

While things will likely get better for the music industry before they get better, relief is in sight in the form of a U.S. law making its way through the senate that would prevent computers and other electronic devices from playing unauthorized music, movies or other copyrighted material.

Don’t underestimate how determined some companies are to put an end to unchecked online file swapping. Software companies are losing more than $12 billion a year to software piracy. The music industry is easily losing tens of billions of dollars if you combine lost sales with the value of pirated material. Hollywood, which is only beginning to feel the pinch as entire movies are beginning to appear on the Internet before they’re even out of the theatres, could lose big.

Senator Ernest Hollings of South Carolina introduced a bill that would require Silicon Valley and Hollywood to agree on a standard to stop digital piracy within the year or face legislation that would decide things once and for all. Known as the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, the legislation would also apply to other files, including MP3s.

The companies that manufacture the various video and audio players would have to agree to include a software patch that would recognize pirated and copyrighted materials and refuse to play them. Software that’s currently used to transfer one file type into a digital format that can be traded online would likely also be modified.

There’s some talk that the computers themselves will be taught to recognize pirated files, either at the Operating System level, or within the hardware itself, likely by a next generation processor.

This would also allow companies to share video and music, but would subject both to the same kind of limited licensing as a lot of shareware – i.e. the infamous 30-day free trial.

In exchange for agreeing to change their software, digital media companies would be encouraged to share more protected material to keep consumers happy.

If Hollywood and Silicon Valley are unable to come up with an acceptable anti-piracy technology within the year, the new legislation making the technology mandatory – which nobody seems to want – would kick in.

A number of hardware companies, including Intel, are currently working on a system that would prevent pirated files from being copied to hard drives, but oppose the legislation. Other critics say the entire industry will be hurt financially just to protect the entertainment industry.

For example, if people didn’t pirate as much material from the Web, they wouldn’t buy as many recordable CDs or purchase as much hard drive space. People wouldn’t see the need to buy the latest sound or video cards, or surround sound speaker systems to use with their computers.

While most people would probably keep their broadband connections, some customers may opt for slower and cheaper services.

There’s also the international aspect to consider. People might decide to buy hardware and software from other countries that don’t have the same piracy protection traits, and that would no doubt hurt some companies.

Finally, there’s the fact that millions of files without any kind of anti-piracy markers that could be identified by software or hardware are already available. It will still be out there, it will just be harder to get.

Whatever happens, it’s clear that the current state of legal limbo isn’t going to hang around forever. Enjoy the free and easy life while you can.