New wave, new threat

MP3: Students love it, the music industry fears it.

January 04, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,sun staff

Kim sits in her college dorm late at night, tapping out a paper on her laptop computer and listening to Barenaked Ladies. When she tires of that band, she clicks her mouse, and the bark-rough voice of Dave Matthews fills the tiny room.

Kim has turned her computer into a digital jukebox. With a click, she can listen to more than 400 songs tucked away on her hard drive. When she heads to the library or to class, she totes her laptop and a pair of headphones. Her PC has become her Walkman, her radio, her stereo.

``It's easier when you're doing your work. You don't have to get up and fool with a stereo,'' says Kim, a Baltimorean who asked that her last name not be used lest her jukebox get her into hot water.

She's not being entirely paranoid. Campus networks and the Internet beyond are alive with the sound of music - much of it pirated - and the technology that makes this possible is scaring the daylights out of the recording industry. Predictably, the industry is fighting back with with lawsuits and promotional campaigns aimed at copyright violators.

But the pirates always seem to be one step ahead. As a result, after decades of distributing music through the same channels - at the same prices - record companies are realizing that they'd better learn how to sell music over the Internet - or be left behind.

The technology that college kids love and the record industry hates is called MPEG-1 layer 3, or MP3 for short. It's an audio compression scheme that can squeeze a digitally recorded song to one-twelfth of its original size and still produce near-CD quality.

With inexpensive software available on the World Wide Web, you can plop an Eric Clapton disc into your computer's CD-ROM drive, compress a song and copy it to your hard disk as an MP3 file. This is legal, as long as you use the song for your own pleasure.

But you can also send a digital duplicate to a friend over a standard, dialup Internet connection in 10 minutes or less, or post it on a Web site. On a high-speed network, the transfer takes only a few seconds. Unless you have the artist's permission, however, this is a copyright violation.

Because they can be passed around so easily, MP3 files have become a hot commodity on the Internet. In fact, a recent survey of online search engines found ``MP3'' to be the second most searched-for word on the Web. The first was ``sex.''

``I don't want CDs anymore,'' says Justin Doyle, a 20-year-old philosophy major at Princeton who owns more than 300 compact disks and converted many to MP3 format.

``CDs break. They get scratched. They're a pain `` he explains. With MP3s, on the other hand, ``You can play the songs in any order you want, you can instantly access them. They're also virtually unbreakable.''

Some mechanically inclined music fans are finding ways to take their tunes on the road. Pop the trunk on Jason Lewis' 1987 vintage Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight and you'll find a Pentium PC loaded with more than 200 MP3 files by groups ranging from Sublime to Smashing Pumpkins.

The PC is wired to the car's Aiwa speakers and draws its power through the cigarette lighter. Lewis controls it with a Radio Shack keypad mounted on the dash.

``Its great for road trips,'' says the 20-year-old junior at Villa Julie College. ``You have hours and hours of music with you in your trunk.''

Lewis created a Web site ( to show others how to wire their cars and bought a vanity license plate for his cutting-edge cruiser: MP3 CAR.

``It's kind of funny when the computer is worth more than the car it's in,'' he chuckles.

Not everybody is amused by MP3 technology.

``MP3s are a big problem,'' says Christopher Young, president of Cyveillance in Alexandria, Va, which scours cyberspace for copyright violators on behalf of clients such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

``Based on what we've seen, there more people out there now who are violating copyrights than there are people who are doing it legitimately,'' Young says.

The recording industry has cranked up its attack on virtual bootleggers. Last year, the RIAA sued one Arizona college student and his Internet service provider after discovering 50 MP3 songs by Nine Inch Nails, the Cure and other artists on his Web site. Another pirate was found distributing the entire Beatles catalog - compressed using MP3 technology onto a single CD.

But many in the industry concede that policing the Net may ultimately be a losing battle. The problem: Even if the Web were cleansed of bootleg MP3 sites, how do you block millions of compact disks from being converted into digital music files and passed around privately?

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