Napster used all nine lives

Here lieth Napster Inc.: Net renegade, consumer advocate, corporate ire inducer and theft enabler. Although Napster's prolonged death rumble finally came to its last gasping breath last week when a judge blocked the sale of its assets to German media giant Bertelsmann AG, the little kitty that could hasn't really gone through all nine lives, has it?

Despite the fact that users looking to pay their last respects to the song swapping site that started it all found a "Ded Kitty" [sic] caption on Napster's Web site last week, emblazoned above the company's familiar cat-in-headphones logo, it at least lives on through the legacy it created.

While Napster's free-trading ways were eventually tamed by the record industry, when they had the peer-to-peer (P-to-P) site knocked permanently offline last year, the file swapping networks that have arisen in its wake are even more formidable.

"Napster may be gone but the legacy that it left behind was millions of users who were exposed to the concept of P-to-P networks," said Michael Gartenberg, research director at Jupiter Research. "The genie is out of the bottle."

Napster, which claimed over 60 million users at its height, was run from central servers, making it relatively easy to shut down. However, the newfangled P-to-P networks that have arrived in its place, such as Morpheus and Kazaa, have no central servers, with files located only on users' computers. And not only are these networks tougher to curtail, they are wildly popular and allow for easy trading of not just MP3s, but movies, videos and entire CD box sets.

No wonder the music industry has launched a fierce retaliatory campaign, firing off lawsuits while sending in armies of lobbyists and legislative foot soldiers in an attempt to thwart piracy.

Aside from copyright infringement suits against the P-to-P networks, the music industry has been lobbying in Washington for copyright-protection controls in electronic consumer devices and other protective measures. The industry has also stepped up consumer education campaigns, reaching out to universities and grade schools in an effort to teach kids about the perils of piracy.

But while groups like the Recording Industry Association of America Inc. (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) have rolled out the big guns, the free file-swappers are clearly not ready for a retreat.

Kazaa home users totaled 8.2 million in June, according to research from ComScore Media Metrix, while P-to-P software application Audiogalaxy had 3.2 million users that same month and Morpheus 2.9 million.

What's more, the RIAA's recent attempts to track down individual, infringing, file swappers, have apparently boiled the blood of some tech-savvy swappers, who not only hacked the RIAA's site, but posted free music downloads on it. "The hacking crowd is not a group of people you want to pick a fight with," Gartenberg said. "If the game here is going to be a technical cat and mouse, the recording industry is doomed to failure."

Gartenberg predicts that the recording industry is in for an uphill battle unless it can make some serious concessions on music pricing and portability.

"Right now we can have any song we want by any artist we want for free and the response to the record industry is what are you countering that with?" he said.

Frank Creighton, executive vice president and director of antipiracy at the RIAA, concedes that it will be a tough fight.

"These are long battles, primarily from the standpoint that these are complicated issues and the court process is long," he said.

But in the end, Creighton added, the compromise will be driven by the consumers.

While major-label backed online music subscription services are beginning to ease their rigid hold on music by offering consumers features such as CD burning, the industry is not prepared to give up the ship yet, despite the tenacity of the pirates.

Speaking on the introduction of new antipiracy legislation last July, RIAA Chairman Hilary Rosen said, "the current landscape for online music is dangerously one-sided, with peer-to-peer pirates enjoying an unfair advantage."

With the popularity of P-to-P networks on the rise, it might be some time before the music industry regains ground. Still, the demise of Napster, once the emblem of tech rebel hipness, serves as a stark reminder of assailability of things that appear too good to be true.

And while Napster's cold remains are now for sale in bankruptcy liquidation, and up for grabs to anyone who can scrape together the $6 million minimum bid, the battle it sparked appears far from over.

Given this, perhaps Napster's best eulogy is the one it wrote itself, appearing now on "Napster was here."

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