Music piracy enters new level of activity

Downloads: Web sites offer albums before their release dates, forcing licensed distributors to step up subscription efforts.

August 08, 2002|By Jon Healey | Jon Healey,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Despite the music industry's intensifying battle against online piracy, a new crop of Web sites are brazenly offering entire pirated CDs for free downloading even before they are released.

Two of these sites - and 21st Century MP3 (www.21century- - recently offered complete versions of forthcoming albums by such acts as Bruce Springsteen, Linkin Park, Def Leppard and R. Kelly. The sites support themselves by selling pop-up and banner advertisements for a wide variety of companies, ranging from online casinos to Dell computers.

Their operations are based at least in part overseas, complicating the task of enforcing copyrights. For example, records show that Listen4ever's Web site was registered by Australian and Chinese companies, with support for the site coming from an Internet service provider in Beijing.

Such operations are cropping up as the music and movie industries battle to curtail online piracy on a growing number of fronts, including the courts, Congress and international copyright authorities. Their emergence illustrates how attractive online music piracy remains and how difficult it can be for companies to stop their works from being copied for free.

In another effort to compete with online pirates, Sony Music Entertainment and Vivendi's Universal Music Group have launched an upgraded music subscription service.

Pressplay, the companies' 7-month-old joint online venture, is offering subscribers the ability to burn major-label songs onto blank CDs and to transfer the music to a variety of portable devices.

"This is the most significant announcement in the last two years from the music industry," said P.J. McNeally, an analyst with the research firm GartnerG2 in San Jose.

Pressplay and MusicNet - a similar service from AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann, EMI Group and RealNetworks launched last December - have been criticized for failing to offer users a viable alternative to free, music-swapping networks such as Morpheus and Kazaa, or to more brazen music Web sites operating oversees.

Both pressplay and MusicNet stream music files, but have not given users portability or the ability to keep any songs when they unsubscribe. Pressplay has limited the number of tunes that can be burned, while MusicNet still doesn't let users burn songs.

Pressplay's upgraded service offers unlimited streaming and unlimited downloading for about $10 a month. For about $18 a month, users will be able to transfer 10 songs a month to various brands of portable devices that use Microsoft software. Additional portable downloads can be bought.

The industry is competing with an Internet that offers a cornucopia of free music, virtually all of it made available without the copyright owners' permission.

The new crop of services is distinguished by slick presentations and easy operation. Users click on album covers to call up a list of songs from that CD, then click on song names to download them. The songs are presented in common Internet file formats, although in some cases users have to download and install extra software to gain access to the music.

"It sounds wildly blatant, and I'm surprised the lawsuit hasn't been filed yet," said analyst P.J. McNealy of GartnerG2, a technology research firm.

Officials at the Recording Industry Association of America, a trade group for the record companies, said the RIAA has been able to shut down similar U.S.-based Web sites just by notifying the site or its Internet service provider of the apparent copyright violation. For those based overseas, it typically has relied on similar enforcement actions by its international counterpart, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

No action has yet been taken on Listen4ever or related sites, the RIAA said.

By the international federation's count, there are about 200,000 Internet sites providing free access to an estimated 100 million pirated music files. Last year, the federation and its affiliates worldwide helped shut down 28,000 sites with 5.6 million pirated files and pulled the plug on close to 1,000 computers providing directories to illicit peer-to-peer services.

Jon Healey writes for The Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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